Monday, November 29, 2010

Before I revisit those mountains...

Did I hate or like this one?
In sixth grade, my class was told that for our sci-fi/fantasy unit, we would be reading John Christopher's (and I now discover that's a pen name...) "classic" - The White Mountains.

This voracious reader, well versed at the time in young adult appropriate sci-fi and fantasy books, was outraged. "What is this book?" I complained to the teacher. "There are so many amazing sci-fi and fantasy books out there, they have to pick this tacky, stupid looking book?" She sighed and nodded in agreement. "Yes, I really don't understand why we study this."

Retrospect tells me that my teacher probably disliked the book in part because I can't recall a single female character in it (so even if there were girls, fact is that I don't remember them!). A forgivable sin (to a degree...), but when teaching a class split half girls half boys, it really doesn't make sense to read a book like this. Then again, my complaints stemmed from an entirely different realm. I wanted to read books like The Giver again (I'd already read it at a different school the year before and had seen the impact it had on the class), or A Wrinkle in Time and books along those lines. What was this ancient book being thrust upon me? (Ancient being, of course, entirely in comparison to all my 10-11 years of life. Then again: 1967 publication year. Come on, guys.)

I remember a lot more from this book than I should. I remember some joke about "Jean-Paul" sounding like "Beanpole", evil tripods, steel caps... But I remember hating the book. Or at least saying I hated it. And then promptly reading the two sequels.

Here's where it starts to get fuzzy. Why would I read not one, but two sequels if I actively didn't like the book? I'm lead to believe that I probably liked the book reasonably enough (or was intrigued by the premise, or wanted to be friends with one of the characters - who knows), otherwise I wouldn't have bothered with sequels. It's strange though, the tricks memory can play on you. I look at the cover of The White Mountains (and subsequent sequels) and feel queasy. A hint at an ultimate disappointment? No, I remember being riveted at the end of the third book (by one particular, entirely spoiler-filled scene). Nausea due to the hideous covers? Hmm...

I'm looking forward to revisiting The White Mountains (and sequels). The fact is that I barely remember anything from them (some flashes here and there), so it's like coming anew. Maybe I'll see what my teacher couldn't as to why we read this over other sci-fi books (though I doubt it...). Maybe I'll find a great sci-fi classic. Or maybe I'll realize that I hated this book for good reason. We'll see.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Good literature is not disappearing

I've discussed this in the past, but there's this myth in publishing (and in the literary world in general) that there was once a literary golden age and that we are now far away from it, in a world where literature is allegedly disappearing and that quality means nothing, all that matters is sales and profits. When I want to shoot this claim down, I always find myself lacking concrete ways to explain myself. Then I found this quote:
"That view [that books must stand or fall on its own merit] is as extinct as the post-chaise and the packet-ship--it belongs to the time when people read books. Nobody does that now; the reviewer was the first to set the example, and the public were only too thankful to follow it. At first they read the reviews; now they read only the publishers' extracts from them. Even these are rapidly being replaced by paragraphs borrowed from the vocabulary of commerce. I often have to look twice before I am sure if I am reading a department-store advertisement or the announcement of a new batch of literature."
Modern complaint? No, this would be from "Expiation" by Edith Wharton (a gracious tip of my hat to Levi Stahl of Ivebeenreadinglately for posting this). There are two fascinating points in the entire quoted passage Levi Stahl chooses to highlight. The first is what I have displayed above - the so-called golden age of literature and lovers of literature - and the other is the matter of publishing crap. Both stem from the same general idea that there was once this wonderful age for literature, where people read only the very best books and publishing was a glorious industry that fulfilled the wishes of its noble customers and that's how the greatest books ever were published. And they lived happily ever after.

Except when you start to think about it a little more in depth, it makes no sense. Not that such a golden age could exist, but rather the realization that it hasn't. Not yet, at least. Or maybe it's been going on all around us. Or something like that.

My favorite example of this is  in Of Human Bondage. Philip laments how Mildred reads trashy books. Based on the publication date of Of Human Bondage and Wharton's own time, I'd have to guess that she's referencing the bygone days that are sadly mentioned in Of Human Bondage. Not proof against a golden age, perhaps, but evidence. Hints. A nice reference point.

So generations of authors and readers have felt that an age of quality literature was coming to an end. Today we see the dawning of an eReader age and mark that as the doom of literature as we know it. I don't just mean books, I mean literature. I have read many a blog posts about how technology is ruining our ability to enjoy quality literature, how soon all books are going to be gimmicky or "enhanced eBooks", distracting us further with extras that aren't actually books. Who knows - maybe these fears are founded. But I for one doubt that quality literature will cease to exist (just as I don't believe that print books will ever disappear).

Is good literature getting hard to find? Maybe. Does that mean it no longer exists? Absolutely not. I may not read many new excellent super-hyped novels these days, but I have read several excellent new novels from around the globe in a variety of genres, regardless the praise and attention they've received. A reader just needs to know how to look. Just as we find numerous excellent books from the time Wharton complained about the death of quality literature, the next generations will find our gems. We need not stress so much.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Divided over Daniel

Which plot is your favorite?
Once I first realized the brilliance of George Eliot's pen in late 2007, I decided this was one of those authors I'd have to read through and through. I started this project with the absolute understanding that it could take decades, but I'm taking it easy. The first three came in quick succession; it's been a while, though, since the last. That last was the wonderful Daniel Deronda.

Yeah, the one that most people think isn't so hot. Allow me to elaborate.

Daniel Deronda is not my favorite of the three Eliot novels I've completed thus far. It cannot compare to the concise excellence of Silas Marner. Not that it isn't very good as well, just that it's absolutely impossible to compare the two works (and I enjoyed Silas Marner a smidgen more...). There's something special about this fat novel, though. It is, to be quite frank, the exact opposite of Silas Marner. Where the latter is a small, compact book and perfectly sculpted, Daniel Deronda is overflowing, even bloated. More specifically, it's redundantly large in the eyes of many readers.

Daniel Deronda is one of those books with two entirely different plots going on within its pages: the Gwendolen sections and the Jewish sections. In the eyes of most readers, it's the Gwendolen story that holds the book. Commenter LilyDale over at the Guardian wrote almost 2 years ago the following (often echoed) statement:
"The problem is not that the Jewish sections are Jewish, it's that they're bad -- boring, didactic, unsubtle -- while Gwendolen's sections are some of Eliot's best work."
The thing is, I don't really agree. Yes, Gwen's part of the book is the more dramatic one if looked at a certain way. It's got a lot more action, a lot more story and a lot more... well, drama. But it's Daniel's search for understanding in Judaism that makes Daniel Deronda an interesting book. It really is a bit of a slow read, but I must disagree: the Jewish sections are far from boring in the strictest sense of the word. Unsubtle, perhaps, but there is something fascinating in the blatantness Eliot gives that story.

I am well aware of the fact that part of my fascination with this book is my interest in Eliot's interest in Zionism and Judaism. It's easy to forget that the book was published in the 1870s, not that long before the Dreyfus affair and in the midst of Jewish integration in the general European world. Is the writing clunkier than Eliot's mastery in Silas Marner? Quite. Does it matter? Well... to many it does. As that old Guardian article points out, the book is a divisive one. Many readers express dismissal of the entire Jewish story, preferring Gwendolen's story by a wide margin.

There's so much to this book. Positive, negative... I can think of many parts that made me cringe, scenes that had me at the edge of my seat, and moments that made me wonder why it had taken me so long to get to George Eliot. It seems a shame that most readers would rather Daniel Deronda be something it is not - half the book and heavily edited. At the end of the day, it's a good book (or two books, depending on how you look at it...). Enough said.

For now...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Forgotten and forgettable
There's something fun about combining the librarian fun of sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing with the nostalgia of Good Books for Kids. Searching for all sorts of kid classics brought to mind memories of a simpler reading era and made me wonder at the books I used to read. And then, a strange realization - I could not remember half of the stories of the books I read, but I could remember pretty much if I liked them or not.

Frindle? Kid renames the pen a "frindle", right? A power struggle with the teacher? I think, not sure. Liked the book a lot. Love That Dog? Written in weird prose, I think, and absolutely terrible. Hated it. Donna Jo Napoli's books - each reasonably good, none that really jump out. Louis Sachar? Can pretty much do no wrong. Just Ella - some loophole at the end, no? Whatever - great story, a lot of fun.

Anybody sensing a pattern as to what is remembered here?

It begs the question, though: how well must we remember books? And what counts as remembering a book? As I read Madeleine L'Engle's An Acceptable Time (another sequel in the Time Quartet/Quintet/Trilogy, if Many Waters is excluded...), I once again felt that I must have read the book at some point (I do believe a friend lent it to me...), but I could not remember anything. Not one scene, not one moment. I remembered vaguely that there was a character who was kind of evil and that's about it. Turns out the book is still fairly forgettable, even nine years down the line.

An Acceptable Time is the exception. I couldn't remember anything about the book, but with so many other kids books, I can vaguely recall scenes and certainly how I felt about it. Place this alongside my strengthening memory of books I've read in recent years. Is the difference the time? I don't think so. Books I've read more recently I've also summarized and reviewed in my own personal journals (or online). I'm not surprised that I've forgotten these books, but rather that the emotions tied to them are so strong. The mind is a fascinating thing.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lessons from L'Engle, part 1

One of the most influential books on my childhood was definitely A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I need only count the number of times a day I find myself thinking about the characters, the plot, the friend I grew close to due to our shared interest in L'Engle's Time Quartet, and various quotes from the book. Perhaps with the exception of Harry Potter (and perhaps even without!), no book has ever been so important to me. Certainly not in the same way.

A Wrinkle in Time influences how I read even today. Science fiction space travels? Dimensions? Time, space, shifts and moves... All of my understanding - all of my imagining - stems from one "children's" book. When I read nonfiction about dimensions and theories of the shape of the universe, it's L'Engle's world that comes to mind. L'Engle's was not the first sci-fi book I read, but it was the first to make me wonder how much of the book's content was actually true. Few books today inspire me so.

There is one scene in A Wrinkle in Time that I remember most vividly. It is not my favorite scene, it is not the most dramatic, and it's definitely not the best written, but it's the most interesting two pages I think I've ever read. The kids - Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace - are receiving an explanation of the "tesseract". I won't spoil the surrounding scene (which, in addition to the quote below is curiously fascinating) for those who haven't read this excellent book (I  encourage you, though, to run out and read it immediately!), but ultimately this is an explanation of plausible space travel in L'Engle's world.
"You see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who's right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across." Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together. "Now, you see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "he would be there, without that long trip. That is how we travel".
As a child, I found these lines to be interesting. Cool, even, with the little drawings of hands bringing the skirt together. With time, though, the scene seemed to grow more and more. Today it stands in my mind as clearly as if I read it daily. The description following this scene, where the children are asked "What is the first dimension?" leading through to the fifth is uniquely L'Engle - though science discusses various similar topics on occasion, I have found that dimensions are always defined in my mind word for word as L'Engle described them. When reading Flatland (I have been slowly, slowly, slowly reading that small book, every month or so taking in a little alongside my other reads. Eventually I will finish it. Quite nice, actually.), my imagination kept showing me three children and three women discussing dimensions. The children are lines. The women are cubes.