Review: The Magicians, Lev Grossman

Whoa, how did I not review this yet?  I thought I had – but apparently I only thought about it, A LOT, and then forgot to do it because I was reading through the Amelia Peabody books.  (Still fun!)

The Magicians is about a boy called Quentin Coldwater who is obsessed with a series of books about a fictional land, Fillory.  One day, he interviews for and gets into a school of magic, Brakebills, and he spends the next lots of years learning magic, and practicing magic, and eventually (is this spoilers?  I feel like no, because you see it coming from the beginning) it turns out that Fillory was real all along, and he and his friends go to Fillory.

I loved the Fillory thing.  Narnia obviously informed the idea of the Fillory books – the child protagonists, the magic alternate world, the talking animals, etc. – but very rarely did it feel like Grossman was borrowing too much from C.S. Lewis.  (The exception is that he swiped the entire idea of the Wood Between the Worlds with hardly any changes, which kind of bugged me.)  Mainly, though, this device works very well.  The idea of the book is sort of a growing-up of children’s fantasy.  Quentin’s obsession with Fillory makes him expect one thing out of magic, and he finds it works quite differently.  He grows into adulthood and cannot quite work out what to do with his life, and finally he gets to Fillory and finds it absolutely not what he was imagining.  It’s all pretty dark and difficult and messy, like adulthood is – the expectations kids have, and the difficult, compromise-y reality.

(Spoilers here.)  What worked particularly nicely for me, in suggesting the transition from childhood magic to the world of adulthood, is the episode where Quentin decides to play a tiny prank on one of his teachers.  The minor distraction he creates summons a Beast from another world, and a student who tries to save the situation gets killed.  BAM.  It was effective.

On the down side, I did find the book unbearably self-conscious at times, especially on the one or two occasions that the students of Brakebills made reference to Hogwarts and Middle Earth.  It was jarring.  Fillory was fictional Narnia, so the world of the book was obviously not our world; to make reference to a real-world book took me right out of the moment.  If there is Fillory instead of Narnia, Tolkien and Harry Potter can’t exist.  Does that make sense?

Another problem I had was that, although the book was a good exploration of the adulthood thing I mentioned before, it wasn’t tightly plotted.  Extraneous events and stories were easily distinguishable from plot point events and stories because Grossman was telegraphing his punches like mad.  Plus, the trip to Fillory didn’t happen until ages into the book, and it was so brief there wasn’t enough time to build up the necessary suspense.  (Though I did like the final revelation about Martin.)

I spoke a while ago about Neil Gaiman’s story “The Problem of Susan” and the problems I had with it.  Grossman’s story is as creepily effective as Gaiman’s at growing up the Narnia books, without being as disrespectful to Lewis’s writing.  On the other hand, given that it was novel-length rather than just a short story, The Magicians could have benefited by having a good editor.  It was uneven altogether – it dragged in bits, and raced in bits, and while some things worked spectacularly, others spectacularly did not (the niffin thing?  not so much).

I like for my life to be simple, and I have fretted about how many stars to give this book for a while now.  I decided on three as an average, though as I say, in parts it was a five and in parts a one or two.  What would you prefer – an all-bad book you can write off forever, or a book like this that’s inconsistent?

Other reviews: A Novel Menagerie, She Is Too Fond of Books, bookshelves of doom, OF Blog of the Fallen, Reading the Leaves, Books and Movies, Beyond Books, The Wertzone, The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf and Book Review, Darque Reviews, Wordsmithonia, Strategist’s Personal Library, Stephanie’s Written Word, and tell me if I missed yours!

C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children, eds. Lyle W. Dorsett & Marjorie Lamp Mead

So my life has been in a smidgy bit of an uproar lately, for various reasons – my library card expired, for one thing, right on the day that half my books were due to get renewed!  I had no idea the expiration date was so soon; it feels like I just renewed it a few weeks ago.  And, see, I have this friendly blue library card with an elegant number that I have memorized, and it has one of the earliest extant drafts of my signature, which I had only invented recently when I got the card in 2001.  However, the library has since “upgraded” to fancy new white library cards that are just so cold and hateful and soulless, and every time I see them my brain is all NOT THE MEAN WHITE CARD DO NOT WANT, and the last time I got my library card renewed, the librarian tried to take my old card away and give me a nasty new one, and it was such a narrow escape, you have no idea.

This time I was prepared.  I said a whole lot of words to the library guy to convince him of the sincerity of my desire to keep my exact particular library card FOREVER.  “BECAUSE I KNOW THE NUMBERS BY HEART,” I explained to him urgently, not giving him my card when he put out his hand for it.  (I kept having visions of him snipping it smartly in half before I could stop him, and it was like watching someone CUT UP A CHILD.  It’s just so irrevocable.  Once you have cut a child in half, it’s too late to fix it!  You cannot tape it back together and keep using it!)

And he didn’t say anything, just kept waiting for me to hand him my library card, and I believe I said something along the lines of, “No, seriously, listen, I understand that there is a new library card in town but I cannot bear to lose this library card.  We have been together all these years and we just can’t be parted, you see, because it would be far too painful, a brutal separation really, and CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?”  As I mopped up my tears and prepared to ululate martyr’s funeral style, to make sure he understood the serious mourning I would have to go into if he took my friendly blue library card away, the library guy looked to his colleague for assistance, and his colleague said, “Um, yeah, she can keep that one if she wants it.”  OH AND I DO.

Well anyway, it was very stressful, as you can imagine, in spite of the very validating realization that I have only accrued $13.30 in fines since three years ago when my card last had to be renewed.  So I sensibly bought myself some spiritually soothing books to get me through these and other difficulties.  I got a large green book with a soppy nature drawing on the front that is a compendium of C.S. Lewis’s religious writings – I need some of these, and the book cannot help the soppy drawing – and I got The Essential Rumi, which I love so much I haven’t yet figured out how to address it on this blog, and I got C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children.

Phew.  That was a long introduction for a very slim book.

Those of you who read this blog regularly may know that I have a rocky relationship with C.S. Lewis.  The longer we are apart, the more he bothers me.  I am sensibly buying a lot of C.S. Lewis’s books, so that I will be statistically more likely to read his stuff frequently, because in reality I love him an awful lot.  And this book, his letters to children, mainly about his Narnia books, is exactly the reason (well, one of many) that I love him.  He does not patronize, and it’s so easy to patronize a kid.  He writes in a serious but good-natured way, and answers their questions very politely.  Behold an excerpt:

Dear Lucy,

I am so glad that you like the Narnian stories and it was nice of you to write and tell me.  I love E. Nesbit too and I think that I have learned a lot from her about how to write stories of this kind.  Do you know Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?  I think you wd. like it.  I am also bad at Maths and it is a continual nuisance to me – I get muddled over my change in shops.  I hope you’ll have better luck and get over the difficulty!  It makes life a lot easier.

It makes me, I think, more humble than proud to know that Aslan has allowed me to be the means of making Him more real to you.  Because He could have used anyone – as He made a donkey preach a good sermon to Balaam.

Perhaps, in return, you will sometimes say a prayer for me?

With all good wishes,

Yours sincerely,
C.S. Lewis

I have this book of letters that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, and the editors of it have cleverly chosen a selection of letters relating to Lord of the Rings.  I bought it one time when I was in California learning Chinese (not very successfully though I can still count quite high), and although I do not count myself among the die-hard Lord of the Rings fans in my family (didn’t even read it until the films came out – I know, I know), I was captivated by Tolkien’s letters about it.  I wish someone would do a similar thing with C.S. Lewis and letters relating to his writing.  Not just Narnia but all of his writing.  How good would that be?

Booking Through Thursday

I like this one:

This can be a quick one. Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

So here are my fifteen books that will always stick with me, more or less in the order in which they entered my life:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
Jane Eyre
, Charlotte Bronte
Emily Climbs, L.M .Montgomery
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
, William Shakespeare
The Chosen
, Chaim Potok
The Color Purple
, Alice Walker
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
, J.K. Rowling
, Eloise Jarvis McGraw
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
The Invention of Love, Tom Stoppard
I Capture the Castle
, Dodie Smith
, Julian of Norwich
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie

These are all books that left me breathless.  Is that what we were after?

The Child that Books Built, Francis Spufford

I read about this on Nick Hornby’s Waterstone’s “Writer’s Table” – authors pick out books that are supposed to have “shaped their writing”, and they write little reviews in a few words.  I can’t remember why I was looking at Nick Hornby’s Waterstone’s Writer’s Table – although Nick Hornby is absolutely inextricably linked in my mind to the month I spent in London in 2005.  There was a heat stroke in the second week of July, and the dorm where we were staying didn’t have air conditioning of course, and my room was on the third (American fourth) floor, so it was absolutely boiling.  I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on food in air-conditioned restaurants.  Instead of that I wandered around London finding bookstores with squashy armchairs and air conditioning, and I read A Long Way Down and About a Boy and How to be Good.  It was good times apart from how guilty I felt for sitting in Waterstone’s bookshops (and Borders and Blackwell’s and Foyle’s) all over London reading books I had no intention of buying.

In any case, this book looked very appealing.  I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but one of the reasons I carry on loving reading so much is that I love that moment when you are reading a book and you come across a sentence and you think, This person knows me – this person is me.  Admittedly I worry more than most people about being crazy, so maybe I find it disproportionately reassuring to read my own thoughts in somebody else’s book.  The world is a complicated and bewildering place, and it’s hard to decide whether you’re behaving in a way that’s acceptable and normal.  It’s so legitimizing to read that someone else is doing the same thing, because then, if you’re not doing things right, at least you’re not doing them uniquely wrong.

(Oscar Wilde said, Life reflects art.  Not the other way around.)

The Child that Books Built is a memoir about books and reading, and how they shape a child’s life.  The author talks about the books he read as a kid, how he used them as an escape from finding a way to deal with his younger sister’s very serious illness.  He explores all this in the contexts of child development, cognitive psychology, and all that lot, which is really interesting too.  He talks about how he used to read books in bookstores and feel that he had stolen from the bookstores because the book would be in his head when he left; and he also says he can sometimes spend thirty minutes picking a book to read while he cleans his teeth, which is so exactly me too.  (Hooray.)

I would have liked him to talk more about more books I read as a kid, though that’s not of course his problem.  But when he was talking at length about books I read as a kid, it was fascinating.  He talked about the Narnia books and how captivating he found them, and how sensory C.S. Lewis made his world, even though Narnia wasn’t very cohesive (with the witch and the shades of the Arabian Nights and Father Christmas and slavery).  I’d never really thought about it but the descriptions of food in his books were always gorgeous – whenever I drink water that’s really good, clear, nice water (i.e., whenever I drink tap water at home, God bless my home and its clean water), I am always, always thinking about the sea water they drink at the end of Dawn Treader.  Remember that water?

Then it was also interesting when he talked about American literature.  He said he had a hard time placing America, in time as well as space, so that it was never exactly clear to him when the American books were set, how they lined up with English history.  (Oh, he also said that his town celebrated their octocentenary.  I had to go back and read that twice to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.  Octocentenary.  There is nothing in America that is celebrating its octocentenary.)  I was so interested to read about the Little House books from the perspective of a British dude.  He said a thing about how in America, individual freedom is an end in itself, not leading to something else the way (he says) it tends to be in Britain – which I’d never thought of before.  And because I haven’t read those books as an adult, I haven’t really thought about the extent to which the family puts a tremendously high premium on freedom.

Anyway, there was a load of stuff about Ursula LeGuin that sailed right over my head because I never read any of her books until recently and I hated The Wizard of Earthsea; and then some things about science fiction which again were no good to me at all – just have not read very much science fiction.  And I wish he had said more about Diana Wynne Jones.  Everyone should say more about Diana Wynne Jones; I love Diana Wynne Jones.

So thanks, Nick Hornby and Waterstone’s!  I got the book out of the library yesterday, and returned it today, and now I’m pretending it never happened, because really, it’s just getting ridiculous, I must absolutely not get any more books from the library, because I haven’t finished the ones I’ve got, and I want to start reading the books I bought at the book bazaar.  This weekend I’m going to be a reading fiend: I’m going to finish my Murrow biography and read that book about dancing and that book about Wales, at least, and if I have time I shall also read Beyond Black and/or that Barbara Hambly book whose title I can’t remember.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis

I have argued with myself long and hard before giving this a “favored authors” category, because actually I don’t like C.S. Lewis as a person. I do not favor him at all. I think he was a bit of a sexist jerk, and the reason I don’t read the Chronicles of Narnia more often is that I think C.S. Lewis is a jerk and I’m always saying to myself, Well why would I want to read the books of such a jerk? And then, of course, since I’ve been reading the Narnia books since I was three (I mean, I was read to at that point), I do fairly inevitably pick them up again, and then I’m reminded of how much I completely love those books.

I reread Dawn Treader on the way to Atlanta, mainly because I was trying to decide what bits would have to be cut for the film (the slave trade bits, I decided – it’s a good part of the book but you don’t absolutely need it, and it would take up lots of time), and I just loved it. It’s not my favorite (I like The Horse and His Boy), but it is a mighty good book. I have always felt a little sad about Eustace being really a metaphor for St. Paul (I cheer myself up by assuring myself that, redemption being a common theme in literature, Eustace is not so much a retelling of St. Paul so much as an archetype), but still, the book is wonderful. I love best the Dufflepuds and Reepicheep wanting to take on a dragon singlehanded and playing chess as if he were the chess pieces doing bold and valiant things, and the dark island is very cool and haunting.

I suppose if I wanted to be critical, I might say that the episodic nature of the book makes things a little jerky, and it does to some extent, but I don’t think it’s a big deal, and mostly everything works out beautifully. It’s episodic, but the episodes are excellent.

I also have to say here that I reread Matilda at my grandmother’s house, and you know, Matilda says that she loves C.S. Lewis “but he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books”, which Miss Honey agrees with. I mean – well, I can only conclude that Roald Dahl hadn’t read all of the Chronicles of Narnia, because he could never have said that if he had. Honestly, I don’t see how any living person could fail to think Lazaraleen, for instance, was funny (I can still hear my mother’s voice in my head reading Lazaraleen), and there’s just no way that the Dufflepuds aren’t funny. I was reading this book on the way back from my grandfather’s funeral, and I was so tired I was hardly functional and I kept forgetting words like “impressed”, and still the Dufflepuds made me laugh so hard I cried. Particularly this bit, which contains (I’ve helpfully bolded it) what may be my favorite line in all of literature:

“And we’re extremely regrettable,” said the Chief Monopod, “that we can’t give you the pleasure of seeing us as we were before we were uglified, for you wouldn’t believe the difference, and that’s the truth, for there’s no denying we’re mortal ugly now, so we won’t deceive you.”

“Eh, that we are, Chief, that we are,” echoed the others, bouncing like so many toy balloons. “You’ve said it, you’ve said it.”

“But I don’t think you are at all,” said Lucy, shouting to make herself heard. “I think you look very nice.”

“Hear her, hear her,” said the Monopods. “True for you, Missie. Very nice we look. Couldn’t find a handsomer lot.” They said this without any surprise and did not seem to notice that they had changed their minds.

“She’s a-saying,” remarked the Chief Monopod, “as how we looked very nice before we were uglified.”

“True for you, Chief, true for you,” chanted the others. “That’s what she says. We heard her ourselves.”

“I did not,” bawled Lucy. “I said you’re very nice now.”

“So she did, so she did,” said the Chief Monopod, “said we was very nice then.”

“Hear ’em both, hear ’em both,” said the Monopods. “There’s a pair for you. Always right. They couldn’t have put it better.”

“But we’re saying just the opposite,” said Lucy, stamping her foot with impatience.

“So you are, to be sure, so you are,” said the Monopods. “Nothing like an opposite. Keep it up, both of you.”

“You’re enough to drive anyone mad,” said Lucy, and gave it up.

Hahahahaha. That is comic genius. Matilda is absurd, and so is Miss Honey, even though she has my same name and actually I love her and Matilda both, so I’m going to go ahead and blame this on Roald Dahl instead.

C.S. Lewis and his lovely clear prose. I am appreciating it more and more as I get older and read people like Judith Butler (for God’s sake). Clear prose. That’s what we all need. Nice, clear prose. What are they teaching in these schools anyway?