Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrless

What would the fantasy genre have become with out the breakout popularity of a certain hobbit? Would everything have to come in installments of three? Would there still be such as thing as epic fantasy? Would it still be the big money maker that it is for the publishing industry?

Lud-in-the-Mist offers readers a glimpse of fantasy literature before Lord of the Rings defined the genre in so many people's minds. By no means is it the origins of fantasy literature, but it is a look at the genre before it birthed voices of dissent that only popularity affords (like mine), spawned a multitude of sub-genres, and twelve volume series that continue long after the authors untimely passing.

The story is simple, and that single element is the most refreshing part of the reading experience. It is sorely lacking in the plot convolution, character over analyzation, and page-turning-frenzy that marks so many of today's works of genre fiction. It could be said, and I for one would agree, that the book starts slow. And not the slow of too-much-exposition-not-enough-action of todays novels, but the unhurried pace of a true nineteenth-century novel though it was written in 1926. Upon completion of the book, what is more apparent than the 'slow' pace is the author's comfort with the speed that events happen. Never is their an effort to hurry things up or make events read faster, rather she is in complete control of the story's presentation and very aware of the fact. It is not so much a matter of forcing the reader to be patient, but there is a definite stylistic difference in Lud-in-the-Mist in comparison to a recently written novel of any genre.

Many of today's novels move at the pace of a prime time TV drama (and default to as little character development as well) as that is a viable story-telling medium that we are all exposed too. If you are able to 'unplug' and take things as they are given, without skimming to find the action you will find much to enjoy in Lud-in-the-Mist unhurried presentation.

There is an overwhelming sense of familiarity with this book. Perhaps, because of that feeling there is almost no real gravity in any given situation; even those concerning life and death. The familiarity is due to the works influence on so many of today's modern British fantasy writers: Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and John Connolly to mention a few. While the origins of those writers works don't lie solely in Lud-in-the-Mist its influence can't be denied. From one source or another, we, as readers, are familiar with the material in Lud-in-the-Mist.

We somehow know not the trust "The Green Man" and of course the boundary of our world and Fairieland is not to be crossed (even if the 'why' intrigues us) just as we know it is wrong to partake of things from Fairieland. But think of the delight and wonder that readers at the time felt when reading this work. What we now accept as folklore was at some point in time, an original concept. This book is refined comfort food and a bit of a guilty pleasure all in one: homemade chicken soup on a cold, rainy day with chocolate cake and a glass of milk to follow.

It is this sense of comfort--almost as if you are re-reading a work that has been a long time favorite--that gives Lud-in-the-Mist such a satisfying feeling of intimacy. There is no plot twist when the hero is wronged, or the murder trial goes according to plan. What we would today call simple and straightforward was perhaps shocking in it's own time.

I wouldn't say this was the kind of book I wish I had read as a child, because--truth be told--I'm not sure I would have gotten through the slow pace of the beginning (much like I struggled with Lord of the Rings at an older age.) But having read Lud-in-the-Mist I am sorely tempted to go back and read those opening pages again, now understanding their quality and pertinence.

To think that the world doesn't have to be at risk, and the fate of humanity isn't at stake--in a fantasy novel, no less--and that a story can still have significance may shock some, but trust me, it works. Oddly enough, while this book doesn't focus on plot machinations, it is not a character study either. While we do meet very interesting individuals it's charm lies in it simplicity. There is so much room for a readers personal imagination to 'fill in the gaps' where a modern author may have spelled everything out.

Quite simply, this book is the reason I read fiction: it's fun. Much as I loved it, I can't recommend it to everyone in good faith. It is not for the modern reader, nor the timid that can't handle nineteenth-century style prose and exposition. But to any lover of fantasy that is well read in the genre and seeking something truly different that in one way or another you have read before, there is no other book that I can give a higher recommendation. It is a beautiful, non-epic, of the most trivial sort--and I say all of those with the kindest of meaning. While the construction of the book may be terrible, I'm glad someone is still printing it as I feel it would be a shame for this volume to be hard to find. As it is widely available if you up for something different, in a mundane sort of way, then go grab a copy.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Whenever my interest is piqued by a book or author that is new to me, regardless of what caught my initial attention, I always pick up the most recent work by the author. I particularly don't like to start my induction to a writer that is new to me with the work that established the writer's fame. In some cases in is unavoidable, but not so with Toni Morrison.

I mention this here, at the start of my commentary, because so often the work of renown--in Ms Morrison's case Beloved--is so frequently referenced that it can become difficult to tell which book a reviewer is commenting on. As if having written a classic helps substantiate the quality of all the other works written by that author. Having not yet read Beloved (it is in my to-be-read stack) I offer here free commentary to A mercy, without any dependancy to Beloved.

I found this to be a very difficult read with a payoff that was obscured by a consistently awkward presentation. The multiple points of view force you to stay alert as a reader which is fine by me. The broken English which some characters use is also okay, even if it did get old. (I found it to be a tiresome device to use in the first place.) Yes, it yielded some personality and told much about the particular character, but it did so at the expense of my personal ease-of-reading, which I, of course, value more than any story telling device. I found it hard to make out a central story that all the characters could relate to. Each was doing their own thing, any unifying thread among the characters was thin. I felt Lina, Florens, and Mrs. Vaark--the all female leading cast--all had their own stories to tell and their was not moment of recocilliation for all their stories. This lack of cohesion also detracted from what I felt was the book's strongest point of interest: the 'mercy' itself.

The story was highly enjoyable but getting through it was rough. I can't help but feel that if it were told in a more standard, third person or even a single character's first person point of view that it would have had a stronger affect on me as a reader. All the characters seemed detached from each other, and certainly from me as a reader. Some events were shared by all and some were their own that made them who they were. Once you read far enough into A Mercy there is no confusion as who is who. All the characters are distinct, but for such a short book, there is a steep learning curve.

It sounds silly to say there were 'glimpses of brilliance' considering the author, but …(see above disclaimer) in some of the rare third person narrative I could easily see why the author is so highly regarded. There was beautiful prose, and writing that truly connected me to the situation, and the characters involved. But they were few and always seemed out of place among the garbled poor grammar of one character and the inadequate story telling of another.

At one point in reading, I set to musing if anyone else could have written this book. Or rather if anyone else could have gotten it published. Having already been awarded quite literally ever literary award there is to give, no agent or editor is going to send back a work of Toni Morrison and say, "Let's work on a few things."

I appreciate something different. Furthermore I think it's great when such an established author is willing to try something out of the ordinary such as the presentation elements of A mercy, but I can't help but wonder if a first time writer or anyone not of the stature of Toni Morrison had written this book if it would have gotten through the powers that control publication.

I do not want my feelings of this work to come across as bad, or that I feel the writing was poor. Only it felt like an experiment that was forced upon an existing great story that may have better been told in a more conventional manner.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Meaning of Well Read

There are a great wealth of blogs that talk about books and there are even more readers. 'Well read' is a phrase that is thrown around by anyone who thinks they read more than the average person.

What does it mean to be well read?

How does one become well read? Do you have to read the complete works of Beckett, Proust, and Camus? Does it mean you have to read as many works by women as men? In as many other languages as in English?

Perhaps it means you have to read in all genres and time periods of literary history. Is there a list of books that make one well read? What of the reader that endlessly devours romance novels or biographies and nothing else; as opposed to the reader that picks and chooses from all genres but reads at a much slower rate; are either well read?

Are there benefits to achieving the status? Do these perceived benefits have any practical application; could they be gleaned in any other way?

I'd love to call out a select few pretentious literary bloggers out there for their answers, but I've never been one for name calling.

So what in your mind makes someone well read and what--if any--is the value of such an achievement?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sir Harold Evans at the Decatur Book Festival

The country's largest independent book festival started today with a writers conference, and after that series of workshops concluded the day ended with a speech entitled, 'The Vital Future of the Printed Word', by Sir Harold Evans, a man whose laundry list of accolades is so detailed that to only mention a few honors would seem an offense.

Sir Evan's called out what he deemed 'The four Horseman of the Apocalypse' concerning the printed word--one of which was internet technologies and rapid sharing/printing of information. Then he spelled out what he saw as the future print media and a point of eternal optimism when newspapers are closing faster than ever all over the world: Print on Demand. I found it ironic that he didn't truly address the irony.

In fact, he played his duality very well. He never condemned technology, praised it's many accomplishments, yet adamantly stated the importance of true journalism. His definition of 'the news' was the same as given to him by the proprietor of a news paper he served as editor of in England. "The news is that which someone would pay you not to report." He made his views very clear on how the internet could never deliver the news. A point that upon the conclusion of his talk I was in agreement with.

His eternal optimism was really very catching. Especially so for a writer seeking publication. Even when he referred to himself as a 'relic' and a physical book as an 'artifact' he made the words feel like I do about a great work of fiction: something to be treasured. When asked how to best motivate younger generations to write and appreciate the written word, he responded with a truth that I've never considered. "People want to express themselves, and more so than any other fashion, in writing." As proof he pointed to the bloggers-sphere and said no more.

He was smart, prepared, overly-well informed and truely had something to say. It's not everyday you get to hear a presentation by someone such as he. At least we can read his books, and look forward to his memior.