Thursday, August 7, 2014

recent books read - capsule reviews

Trying to post about books regularly on the same day every week just isn't working for me, and when I try to write up one or two reviews on their own I feel the need to write something Profoundly Important (hah), or at least coherent, and freeze. So for right now while the books are still fresh in mind I'm trying this.

The Magician's Land, Lev Grossman.
I actually seem to like this series more than most people I know, which is baffling, but then again I'm a big fan of Brideshead Revisited, Narnia, and Hope Mirrlees. Maybe you need to be a thoroughly thwarted Anglophile to really appreciate it. I had many messy feelings about this book, and the ones closest to the surface, easiest to grab, are: God, Quentin is as much of a schmuck as the hero of every Neil Gaiman novel; I love Plum and Alice and Julia and even Janet (who gets not just a stunning monologue but serves as witness to the Apocalypse) and wanted the book to be about THEM; Grossman's style has been nearly ruined by Internet slang (at one point he actually writes, "'OMG,' she said"); and towards the end, apparently panicked that his message wasn't fully spelled out enough in the characters' actions, he resorts to boldly telegraphing what he wants us to take away, like a host too eager to clear out a party lasting too long shoving the wrong coat and a mismatched scarf into your hands on his doorstep. For all that, it is very, very enjoyable, and I liked reading it very much. It's interesting to compare this to the infamous Philip Pullman take on Narnia. I can imagine rereading the books in this series (I've already reread The Magician King twice, I think, mostly because of JULIA) but as best I can recall I reread The Golden Compass once and never again, which is unusual for me.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North.
Some wag of a reviewer called this "Death after Death," but while this is basically a scifi take on Kate Atkinson's beautiful fantasy of a repeating life (which I loved), it doesn't have anywhere near the same wonderful prose style, to say nothing of the fully rounded people. Disappointingly, this was also a very interesting idea with a schlub at its heart, only this time there weren't even any women blazing off the sidelines into the narrative every so often. "Claire North," AKA Kate Griffith/Catherine Webb, said in an interview that she didn't want a female narrator because the hero's lifespan takes place between the 1920s and 1970s, and feminism, she implied, would have....gotten in the way of the story. Okay. For the same reason, romance didn't fit into her plot, so while there are a few fleeting glimpses of the schlub's girlfriends and wives, they are pure cardboard. (And near the end, when one particular cardboard piece changes hands: "You took her because she was mine." A female author wrote that! Sure, she's like ten years old or something, but JESUS.) Maybe as Griffith/Webb/North matures she will take the natural step for women writers away from thinking male characters are more 'objective,' a la Ursula K. Le Guin. But it's disappointing that a young privileged female author in 2014 still feels compelled to think that a man's life wouldn't be affected by the feminist movement in his time, and that a woman's view of same would "impede" the story. Live by the genre sword, die by the genre sword.

I've felt very restless about reading lately. It was hard to get myself interested in new books, and while I started some rereads, I couldn't finish them, feeling I was wasting my eyes (I have ocular rosacea and have to nurse them along) and my time (my life is probably about half over by now! Or moreso! GAH). I have stacks of 'serious' books (Poets in a Landscape, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Anarchism is Not Enough), stacks of 'fun' books (Women Destroy Science Fiction, Unexpected Stories, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), stacks of books which are both (Gaudy Night, The Lives of Margaret Fuller, The Letters of Dorothy Sayers) and I just sit and cast a jaded eye over it all like someone who has spent all fifteen of their lives at increasingly elaborate banquets. For some reason, having an ereader is part of the problem, I don't know why -- I've always loved the heft of books, their size and shape and weight and the colour of the covers and the texture of the pages and the way they smell and everything about them, and having that taken away is still hard. But oh well.