Finding Depth in Unexpected Places and Matthew Stover

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The things we read as preteens are not the same things we read as adults. Thank God. As for me, I read “Star Wars” novels. A lot of them.

I didn’t realize until recently how formative this had been. Right at the time when my notions of what is just–what is meaningful–were being formed, I read “Shatterpoint” by Matthew Stover. When I was fascinated by the interconnected nature of good and evil, I read “Traitor” by Matthew Stover. In these books, Stover takes complicated philosophical and ethical concepts and puts them into the Star Wars universe. How do we face existential crises? What do we do when good and evil become hard to distinguish from one another? When all there is in the world is darkness, and we are alone, what decisions might we make?

These two books–and, to a lesser extent, Stover’s other Star Wars novels–formed my mind in ways I was not expecting. There is, reading them now, unexpected depth to them. They were powerful then, and they are powerful now.

Not that all Star Wars novels are up to Stover’s standard. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be hurt every time someone dismisses “Star Wars” as silly, or meaningless. There is the surface…and then there is the depth. Not everyone sees the depths, and that’s just fine. There’s nothing wrong with not going deeper. Everyone has to find the stories that work for them, that resonate with their own beliefs. But let’s try not to judge one another so hard.

The Golem and the Jinni and the Psychology of the Unreal

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Inhuman creatures are a staple of fantasy. That’s a pretty obvious point. They play all sorts of roles in the fantastic narratives of fairy tales and novels. They exist off in worlds of their own.

It’s not common to delve deeper into these creatures. “The Golem and the Jinni” is, in a way, a thought experiment designed to examine the “truth” of these non-humans. What if a Golem and a Jinni (he trapped in human form) were trying to get by in turn-of-the-century New York? How would they feel? How would they act?

And, of course, one of the central totems of the best scifi and fantasy is to a new light upon our own world by seeing it from other eyes. Usually this is about the great acts of human history. But in this novel, the world being thrown into new light is utterly ordinary. These creatures, who are anything but ordinary, are faced with leading ordinary lives. What would they feel? How can they come to terms with just being ordinary?

How can any of us come to terms with being ordinary?

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A Cautionary Tale: Never Let Me Go and the perils of watching the movie first

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I saw “Never Let Me Go” years back. Can’t remember why. I can remember a few scenes, a few scattered bits and pieces. That’s all.

But it still wrecked the book for me.

I’m not giving the standard complaints here: I didn’t mind that things were spoiled. The art of a great novel is a joy in itself–when reading, a good reveal makes for a fleeting satisfaction, while the crafting is makes for lasting.

It’s just that I couldn’t stop trying to imagine the actresses I remembered from the movie. I couldn’t stop trying to force them into the novel. Couldn’t stop wracking my brains to remember whether this scene occurred in the movie too.

That’s the real reason to read a book first. Because the movie will force itself on the book in a way that just isn’t possible in reverse. Reading a book first enhances the enjoyment of a movie: you see an interpretation different from your own, and you can appreciate the whole thing in a new way. But when you see the movie first, that interpretation has already become “the only one” in your mind. It’s hard to get away from that.

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An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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Poverty does not ask for pity. Not always. And not without intent. But it certainly doesn’t ask for pity in the works of Sherman Alexie. It merely asks for your time and your emotion, just like any other book.

I ended up almost crying a half an hour into this book, listening to it on the subway. It never got quite as painful and pure as that again, but it stayed just as good.

I love books that blur the lines between what is fiction and what is real. Fantasies that make you doubt the real world for a moment–and fictions that make you wonder “how much of this actually happened? how much of this is actually happening?” This is a book like that. And at this book’s core is a soul, which feels genuine in a way that most authors only dream of.

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The Memoirs of Lady Trent, Scandalous Victorians, and Fantastic Worlds

 

 

 

 

 

 

I listened to more than thirty hours of “The Memoirs of Lady Trent,” and damn if I didn’t love every minute. Firstly, of course, Kate Reading is an astounding reader. Secondly, Isabella Camhurst is a fantastic character.

Alternate, fantastical histories of the 18th and 19th century have come into fashion recently (see “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and I couldn’t be happier. I’m a history nerd and a fantasy nerd, so the two come together and I get to read the results.

Throughout history, there have been women who fought the sexism of their times to become Great. These women became queens, pirates, popes, scholars. Sometimes they pretended to be men, sometimes they forced the world to accept them as women.

Starting out listening to the Lady Trent books, I assumed that they would take place in a version of England with dragons. The main character is determined to become a dragon naturalist, in spite of society.

Isabella Camhurst is from England, but it’s not called England. It’s called Skirland, and while the majority of people are indeed white and act in a very English way…they’re also Jewish. There is no Christianity in this world: just Judaism and Islam. There is no England, just a place like England. And Isabella travels across the world, to places “like” Russia, West Africa, China, Indonesia, and many more.

This is awesome. Brennan is able to put together the best of both worlds; she can have her dragons and draw on myths and legends of dragons, and also pull in as much as she wants from world history while also making up whatever societies and characters she desires. The result is a mish-mash world that breathes and lives through the eyes of Isabella Camhurst. Now go read/listen.

 

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Mansfield Park and Good Villains

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I loved Mansfield Park. I went in expecting not to like it very much, and I’ll admit it dragged a bit in the first section. But by the end, I was completely sold on this “dark” Austen.

I loved the book, most of all, for its villains. Mrs. Norris, who will force the world to conform to what she thinks it should be. Mary Crawford and her indecision, unawareness, and selfishness. Henry Crawford and his vanity. Mrs. Bertram and her idleness. Moriah and her desire to be loved. Even Edmund and his obliviousness is sometimes a part of the villainy of the novel.

These characters are the darker angels of Austenian society. More than that, they feel somehow more real than real, in the way that Austen was so talented at. We have all heard people like Mrs. Norris complain, have watched Henry Crawfords demand love, have observed Mrs. Bertrams sit in selfish carelessness.

At the heart of this is Fanny Price and her discovery of her selfhood. Fanny was an agreeable child, and she was brought up constantly berated and bullied. Desires of her own were so utterly subordinated as to barely exist. But, as the novel progresses, beneath Fanny’s agreeable exterior is revealed something stronger than even she realizes. Her convictions will not be shifted, her love is not diluted. Even as she sits sobbing, she does not yield past a point. She has found herself.

Nothing about Fanny’s manners or emotions seems “strong.” But she is, somehow, strong nonetheless. It’s a fantastic feat of characterization, and if you’ll excuse me I’ll go try to re-read the book and figure out how on earth Jane did that.

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“The Night Gardener”: How is THIS for kids?

How was THIS for children?

 

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I read this whole book in one sitting, and it scared the life out of me. From the ominous noises, to the fairy-tale secret at the heart of the haunted house (I love a good haunted house). The flowers that grow only by night. And a thousand more little details–this book is unbelievable.

And it’s terrifying. The revelations that make it so come slow, careful. The effect on the characters (who are wonderful) is uncloaked bit by bit. The fear creeps and creeps until it overwhelms.

How is this for kids? In true fairy-tale fashion, I’m left wondering why the scariest stories are always for children.

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