Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link


This book of stories offers several different tastes of the fantasy Kelly Link is known for. There are stories about a resurrected girl, haunted accessories, hazing, bullying, and camping, a pandemic, werewolves, and aliens. One, “The Wizards of Perfil” seemed like it would make a great Miyazaki anime movie. I really enjoyed the way the title story intertwined one narrative with the story-within-a-story of the novel one of the characters was reading. My favorite might be “Magic for Beginners,” about a mysterious cult TV show and its fans, a story that Link’s first adult collection was named for. Understated humor, unexpected images, and real horror abound. I’d compare the stories to those of Neil Gaiman, which is a strong compliment and a fair description of tone, style, and subject. I strongly recommend Kelly Link for anyone who likes strange fantasy with a metafictional twist.

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman


I didn’t love this book as much as I expected to, but I liked it enough. Buttercup never seemed to be more than a damsel in distress, and her relationship with Westley didn’t always seem healthy. She was much less interesting than the side characters. My favorite characters by far were Inigo and Fezzik. Especially Fezzik. He’s very loveable. The over-the-top exaggeration of things like Buttercup’s beauty and Inigo’s fencing skill is a key part of the story’s style, but can get a little grating.

It’s hard to ignore the movie in reacting to this book. The main thing that the movie cuts away is the metafictional aspect where Goldman tells about his process of adapting “Morgenstern’s” text, summarizing the boring parts he cut out and his legal battles with the author’s estate. These passages are cute and funny in a wry way and were obviously impossible to transfer to film, but I don’t think the story loses much without them, especially since the movie retains the “bedtime story” frame, which allows for metafictional observations too. Those metafictional comments are probably the most original and unique parts of the novel/film.

I think the film adaptation of The Princess Bride makes a better film than the novel is a novel. Which makes sense, because Goldman is more famous for screenwriting than fiction. But it also makes me wonder if I’d have felt differently about the book if I’d read it first instead. The best scenes and lines from the book are in the movie, so they were kind of spoiled for me in reading, but the same effect doesn’t seem to happen in reverse. When you’re watching a movie and you’ve read the book, you know what’s coming but you’re still interested to see how it happens and what it looks like. This experience reinforces my conviction that it’s important to read the book before watching the movie adaptation.

Dealing With Dragons

Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede


This is the kind of book I’m looking forward to reading with my kid someday. Princess Cimorene is stifled by life as a royal, by all the things she’s not allowed to do as a proper princess. So she runs away and lives with a dragon, thwarting an evil wizard’s plot. Along the way she meets and helps a witch, a stone prince, and another princess. Characters seem aware of fairy tale tropes and either get trapped by them or use them to their advantage. The tone is lightly humorous and wry, poking fun at the ‘rules’ of stories. Cimorene is a wonderful heroine, full of common sense that leads her to question the gender role she’s been handed, and propose smart solutions to others’ problems. This is the first of a series, so I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books. It’s an easy, quick read, and would be fun to read aloud.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente


Can’t you just tell from the title that this children’s book is an absolute delight? Valente takes a familiar structure, the child who travels to a fantasy world, and makes it feel fresh with bizarre images, clever language and little genre-savvy . Some of my favorite moments in the book were the metafictional ones, where the characters showed that they were aware of themselves as part of a narrative:

    • “if we act like the kind of folk who would find a Fairy city whilst on various adventures involving tricksters, magical shoes, and hooliganism, it will come to us.”

    • at least, she had thought, she had not eaten Fairy food! At least, she had managed better than most little girls in stories who are repeatedly told not to eat the food but do it anyway, being extravagantly silly and stupid!

As you can see, this is a great book to read aloud to a child. The brave protagonist September is an admirable girl who overcomes self-doubt and fear, as well as a perfect reader’s avatar. The technicolor visual images and the slightly unsettling mood reminded me of the movie Pan’s Labyrinth. Valente creates a light, whimsical tone that is tinged throughout with melancholy and puzzlement, with some wordplay that reminded me a little of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth. Here’s a sentence that I think encapsulates the book’s style:

Those were all big words, to be sure, but as has been said, September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.

There was a truly great twist at the end that reminded me of The Magician King, one of my favorite books of last year. In a way I can see this book as a children’s version of that one, or as something a child might read so that someday he’ll be ready to read The Magician King. I’m making all these comparisons because I think this book deserves a place on the shelf next to the other great children’s fantasy books. I’m just thrilled that there’s a sequel.

The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Quentin and Julia are King and Queen of Fillory, the Narnia-like magical world, but he’s bored. So he tries to go on a quest, and ends up back on Earth. The rest of the story is his journey back to Fillory and his defense of magic itself against the gods. Chapters alternate between Quentin’s story in the present and Julia’s story in the past, an account of her unconventional magical education.

I just love so many things about Grossman’s style. It’s rich with allusions to high and low culture. His metaphors often come from technology, comparing magicians and the cosmos to hackers and computers (he does cover tech for Time). An example: “uploading magical knowledge into her starving brain by the terabyte.” He’s always bringing the high-minded hero-on-a-quest rhetoric down to earth by using slang or a curse word, or making a comparison to sex, drugs, or something equally mundane. And when I love a book’s style, I’m always tempted to put lots of quotes into the review, so get ready.

Since I was on the lookout for it from the beginning, I noticed all kinds of metafictional asides and incidents. The self-awareness I loved so much about the first book was back in full force:

“There is Deeper Magic at work here, my child. Even the gods must bow to it. That is the way.”

“Oh, right. The Deeper Magic. I forgot about that.”

The Deeper Magic always seemed to come up when Ember didn’t feel like doing something, or needed to close a plot hole.

There are lots of conversations about the proper attitude to adopt when pursuing a quest. How much do you plan, and how much do you allow the universe to steer you?

“But find [the magic keys] and do what with them?” Poppy said.

“I suppose once we have them all they’ll tell us. Or perhaps we’ll know when we have them. Or perhaps we’ll never know. They might just take the keys and pat us on the behind and send us on our way. I don’t know. I’ve never done a quest before.”

“So…the journey is the arrival, kind of thing?” Josh said. “I hate that stuff. I’m an old-fashioned arrival-is-the-arrival kind of guy.”

“For what it’s worth, they told me the realm was in peril,” Eliot said.

Quentin wonders whether or not he can be happy in the ‘real world’ after life as a king of Fillory, and finds there are things on Earth he didn’t see or appreciate because he was so preoccupied with dreams of supposedly fictional places.

It was Quentin’s first time in England, and he was amazed. …it looked more like Fillory than he’d thought anywhere on Earth could. Even more than Venice. Why hadn’t anybody told him? Except of course, they had, and he hadn’t believed them. …

Maybe she was right, he hadn’t given this world enough credit. Zipping along the narrow highways and shady lanes of rural Cornwall, the four of them could have been regular people. civilians, and would they have been any less happy? Even without magic they had the grass and that blessed country solitude and the sun flickering past between the branches and the solace of an expensive car that somebody else was paying for. What kind of an asshole wouldn’t be satisfied with that? For the first time in his life Quentin seriously considered the idea that he could be happy without Fillory–not just resigned, but happy.

It sounded to me like the tug of war every true bookworm has felt in her soul: the appeal of glimmering worlds constructed by prose versus the dingy but real life we find ourselves in when we look up from a book. Do we spend our lives reading and forget to live? Do we abandon the rapture we’ve found in the pages of a novel, to focus instead on what’s tangible? Do we immerse ourselves in fairy worlds and ignore the everyday magic around us? Where does true happiness lie, in imagination or reality? For someone who’s still figuring this stuff out, reading about someone struggling with the same questions is touching and cathartic.

The scope of this story is much bigger than in The Magicians. Quentin goes back and forth between Fillory, Earth, the Neitherlands, and the underworld several times. The cosmology of Grossman’s universe is revealed, with religious implications. I’d definitely compare the series to His Dark Materials, and that’s a high compliment.

The ending is beautiful and tragic and heroic, in all the best ways. It seems inevitable, but it hurts in just the way that you want a good book to hurt. It also makes me long for the next in the series.

The Magician King is a book I wish I had written.


Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is about a couple of young British academics in the 1980s who discover a set of love letters between two (fictional) Victorian poets. The novel tells the story of both the contemporary and 19th century lovers as the scholars investigate. Once the mystery of the letters begins to unravel, the book is hard to put down. It’s a long novel, and dense with language and big ideas, but the urgency of the mystery makes the pages fly by.

Christabel LaMotte, the Victorian lady poet, is by far the book’s most fascinating and mysterious character. I think of her as a slightly more outspoken and direct English version of reclusive Emily Dickinson. Some of her writing style, especially the dashes, elisions, and elaborate metaphors, remind me of Dickinson. She’s a protofeminist who talks about how “The best [response women writers] may hope is–oh, it is excellently done–for a woman” (197).  When she is pregnant out of wedlock, she refuses to play the role of “fallen woman,” holding herself aloof and snarking at a cousin who just wants to help. That attitude seemed startlingly modern to me.

The novel delves into ideas about how love takes away autonomy; both the 19th and 20th century couples are concerned with losing themselves in a relationship. It’s also about the way literature can be fuel for love: LaMotte and Ash fall in love through writing letters, and Maude and Roland through reading their letters. Another topic: interpretations and misinterpretations of literature. Uncovering the affair between LaMotte and Ash sheds new light on all their works, and shows some earlier interpretations–like the idea of LaMotte as a woman with exclusively homosexual desires–to be erroneous. It’s mind-boggling to extend that idea to all the millions of things we readers can never know about the texts we read and their authors, and how that partial information can lead us to make big mistakes in interpretation. 

Professor Cropper, the villain, is a bit of a caricature, an acquisitive American academic determined to buy England’s literary patrimony. Attempts to humanize him in the beginning of the novel, focusing on how he gave his life to the study of another man’s work, and therefore produced nothing original, leading to a pretty meaningless existence, arouse nothing but pity. Is pity a good emotion to feel for a villain? I’m not sure. Once you start to feel that way about him, he becomes virtually powerless, and you know he’ll lose. Having a villain is what gives some urgency to the quest to find the documents and solve the mystery, because the heroes have to gain the rights and publish before he does. And Cropper is the one who does the unthinkable–dig up a grave–to uncover the final piece of the puzzle. Without him, the story would be slower, more wandering, and with a less satisfying, if overly coincidental, ending.

The most impressive thing about the book is the way that Byatt wrote 19th-century-style poetry and prose and interspersed it with the more contemporary story. These sections really read like something that an author of that period might have written, and are dense and expressive enough that they would stand up well to scrutiny in a college lit classroom.

I really enjoyed Possession; it’s a book about readers’ relationships with the authors and texts they love. I guess that makes it meta and explains why it appeals to me. The title’s meaning is multifaceted, applying to ownership of documents, spiritual possession, self-possession, and relationships that possess one with desire, among other ideas. It’s a thinking book, but that doesn’t mean it’s all philosophizing. It’s also mystery and chase and poetry and love story.

Favorite books of 2011, part 5: Metafiction

Yes, I love metafiction. I love those moments where a story becomes aware of the fact that it is a story. I love narratives that deconstruct themselves. I love genre savvy characters who break the fourth wall. This attraction to going meta has penetrated my personal life as well: every time I disagree with my husband, I have to draw our attention to the way we’re arguing and whether or not it is a loving, fair way to argue. My favorite TV show right now is Community, the sitcom about sitcoms, and if it dies I will cry meta tears.

Going meta makes books, TV, movies, life fun.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Others have called this series Harry Potter for adults, and it’s true. The students are quite a bit older, and sexually active. When Quentin accidentally witnessed a friend’s kinky sex, then I knew we weren’t in Hogwarts anymore. Once “the beast” shows up and kills a student, there’s a sense of menace that Harry Potter doesn’t approach until at least halfway through the series. Fillory, the supposedly fictional magical world that Quentin is obsessed with, is much more like Narnia, though, which should be obvious. I loved how in this world, magic was really difficult to learn, and it seemed like the characters earned the awesome stuff that they could do. And eventually they treated each other like shit, like real young adults, and had some real consequences to their magical traveling, and felt some horrible losses.

Why do I call this metafiction? Throughout the book, explicitly at times, but mostly implicitly, runs a metaphor comparing magic to reading and writing, and reading and writing to magic. When they do magic, Quentin and his friends are like authors making the world anew. Brakebills is like an MFA program. When Quentin and his friends go to Fillory, they’re like kids having fun in an imaginary world of a book. In this way, the novel is about reading, writing, and imaginary worlds. Can’t wait to read the sequel!

The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall

This book is from a genre I really like that I call “retellings,” for lack of a better term. They’re books that tell classic stories from a different point of view, or otherwise enter a conversation started by a previous work of literature. The best examples of the genre change your view of the original work forever. Some other good retellings are: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, The Wicked Years series by Gregory Maguire, Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike, Dracula in Love by Karen Essex, Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King, Jane by April Lindner…I could go on and on.

This novel tells the story of Gone with the Wind from the point of view of Scarlett’s half sister, daughter of Mr. O’Hara and Mammy. Throughout the whole novel, the protagonist calls Scarlett only “Other,” which will make anyone who’s ever read postcolonial criticism chuckle, but which I think was also motivated by lawsuits or fear of lawsuits from the Mitchell estate. The kicker is that she steals Rhett from Scarlett! I loved the way this book centered attention on the slaves and their story, using the book that probably did the most to over-romanticize the Civil War and antebellum period and turning it on its head.

Pale Fire

I first heard about Nabokov’s Pale Fire in a workshop-style grad school class on literary essays. Bryan Smith, a brilliant PhD student who writes strange, experimental fiction, wrote an essay on Pale Fire that I think I can sum up, “Look at all the many ways that Nabokov fucks with the reader in this book! He fucks with you, and then he fucks with the way he just fucked you! Isn’t it awesome!” His essay made me want to read the book, which made it a success in my opinion, but it also made me a little intimidated. The fact that it took about 4 years for me to pick up the book says a little about that intimidation, as well as about the size of my To Read List. And now, I feel nervous that this is the first book that I’m publicly reviewing for my brand-new blog. Couldn’t I have picked a nice YA title?

Pale Fire is a novel in footnotes. The narrator, Charles Kinbote, is commentating on his late friend, John Shade’s, 999-line poem, and telling all about his friendship with the poet and his own life story. Kinbote hijacks the poem and drowns it with comments that have nothing to do with Shade’s work and everything to do with his own agenda. The whole thing is a big joke on academic commentating and the vanity of the professoriate.

The best thing about the book is definitely Kinbote’s voice and narration. He’s one of the most hilariously pompous characters I’ve ever read, yet he lists his modesty twice as a topic in his index, which contains more entries for him than even for the poet he’s supposedly editing. It’s an over-the-top voice, with lots of descriptive flair. He’s incredibly defensive, constantly justifying himself, while claiming that he needs no justification. He begins his foreword talking about how other academics disagreed with him about whether or not Shade even wrote the poem, putting readers on guard about his “competence, and perhaps…honesty” (14).

That line by itself shows a lot about the sentence-level writing of this book. The most important idea of the sentence, the question about the narrator’s honesty, is buried by the sentence, within nested clauses at the end, but in such a way that it calls the reader’s attention right where it needs to be. Kinbote is constantly making these kinds of statements, and you can never tell whether it’s because he’s denying some truth to himself that will out no matter what, because he’s ignorant of something that Nabokov is using some excellent sleight of hand to show you despite his narrator’s best efforts, or because Kinbote is crazy like a fox and knows exactly what he’s doing, showboating and showing off how he’s gotten away with commandeering his dead friend’s last work. These sentences would be delicious fun to pick out and tease apart in a seminar class. Just thinking about that makes me nostalgic for classes in Crounse Hall and McMicken Hall.

Some other examples, which can probably tell you more than I can about the book’s complexity and its sense of fun:

“Do those clowns really believe what they teach?” (271). (Referring to psychology professors, particularly Freudians)

“If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece” (272).

“I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable” (289).

For all of these cerebral, metafictional, bookish moments, the book also has a lot of heart. Even though I had judged Kinbote to be an arrogant hack, Nabokov had made me sympathize with him enough that I felt bad for him when he read Shade’s poem and realized his friend had not written about Kinbote’s homeland of Zembla but about his own life (of course he did, you jerk!). Though I knew how presumptuous and silly Kinbote was being to think that Shade would want to write about some perhaps-made-up foreign king and his adventures, I understood by then how important it was to Kinbote and knew how devastating it was for him. With a form and subject like this, nerdy intellectual fun comes naturally; it takes a master to make what was supposed to be a dry, academic commentary emotionally engaging as well.

I feel like there are a lot of things about this book that I missed because I listened to it in audiobook, instead of reading it in print. Being able to page back and forth between the poem and the footnotes, and between the various threads of narrative, would have helped me to read more carefully. The story isn’t told chronologically, which made it more challenging to follow. It took more concentration than most audiobooks. That’s not a fault of the book, but a caution to anyone who tries to listen to it. Some novels are just as good in either format, some are better spoken, and some are absolutely impossible to understand without full attention to the written word. Pale Fire tips toward the “better in print” side of the spectrum.

At the end of the foreword, Kinbote says, with a wink, “for better or for worse, it is the commentator who has the last word” (29). This is definitely true, and that’s why for all its challenges I’m glad that this was my first review on the blog. The people who talk about books have a lot of power, more power in some cases than authors. Pale Fire is a book about how a reader can make or break a text. It makes me realize that I hope that I can bring something of myself to the books I read, without writing over them the way Kinbote does to Shade’s poem. I hope I can present texts honestly to other readers, giving a fair, honest opinion, without letting my personal agenda run amok. I hope I can work toward creating a voice that’s fun to read, like Kinbote’s, but with actual modesty instead of just pretensions of it. And I hope that mereader won’t be a purely intellectual exercise empty of feeling, but a place were we can discuss how affect and intellect come together in great literature.