Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Child That Books Built

The Child That Books Built: A Life in ReadingThe Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lifelong reading addict guides us through not only his own autobiographical journey, but also through the wild geography of children's literature, from Little House on the Prairie to Narnia and beyond.

This has to be hands-down my favorite books about the reading life, which is why I reread it this year. It's not your typical autobiography, nor your typical reading life journey. Spufford is much more interested in the movement of the human mind from childhood to adolescence, and he brings a panoply of deeply literary references to bear on the subject. His style is reminiscent of my other favorite essayists, particularly Annie Dillard (if you haven't read her and love gorgeously written science essays, start with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, though her other collections are also excellent).

Spufford starts with a dense discussion of the universal psychology of child development, moving from Freud and Jung to Piaget. Each of the next three sections is about a different type of encounter with literature - the pure joy of entering Narnia, with a thoughtful and nuanced take on C.S. Lewis's fervently sensualist Christianity; an Englishman's perspective of America, informed by encounters with Laura Ingalls Wilder and To Kill a Mockingbird; and an adolescence where his reading arc moved from children's literature to science fiction (like Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness) to the metafiction of Jorges Luis Borges and Italo Calvino (two of my favorite writers).

In fact, his childhood reading life so closely mirrors my own that it felt spooky to read the journey of someone who was born a continent and an ocean away, who is roughly the age of my parents, and male - but who read the same books with many of the same emotions. (He only read other books after the discovery of Narnia, he says, because there were only seven Narnia books and he couldn't be constantly rereading them.) Of course, I did not have a sister with a devastating disease, either, or have to wrestle with the complex guilt he felt at his instinctive reaction to her illness.

Spufford is what Nancy Pearl would call a story reader, primarily in it for plot, coming to the pleasures of more subtle adult fiction where character and language overcome story and setting much later, and never as a native to the territory. I'm similarly in it to be carried along by a great story or taken to a fascinating new world. Thanks to Spufford I picked up Arthur Ransome's wonderful Swallows and Amazons (it beats even the first The Boxcar Children hollow as a story of childhood independence), and discovered the alternative-history England - chillingly wolf-infested - of Joan Aiken.

It is tempting to simply spin out title after title of the great books he discusses with such clarity and insight, but I'll resist and instead pepper you with quotations. I was amazed, since it's been so long since I first read this, at how many of his insights and opinions I have internalized without remembering their source. One of the dangers of reading great essayists: your mental landscape will never be the same.

On learning to read
The formerly sacred nature of books

"Compared to the books I was used to, and was growing out of, grown-up literature seemed spectacularly open-ended. I would read a few pages, and there would seem to be no edges and limits to what was going on; no sense of an evolving shape, and so no urgency, and no particular reason to read on. Of course, the reformulating jump into adult fiction consists exactly of a retuning of your reading mind to those subtler, wider, but still ultimately decisive cues to meaning that a writer for adults constructs in the expectation that the person reading will bring an active, participatory judgment to the task. No book is truly open-ended." - 170

On science fiction genre reading in his teens:
"Some of it was frankly bad. Some of it was good on one point only - one idea, one invention - and the whole of the rest of the novel existed only as a scaffolding to hold that one good thing in place. And some of it was 'good' in a purely efficient way, because it worked out a daft premise sleekly. So what. Who cares. Good books are so often committed to self-denial of one sort or another. They make their fictional world real by making it austere; they hammer events into proportion, and subdue them with probabilities." - 178

"Sensible, probable books keep sending you back where you came from. It's the wild and tacky ones that let you see further into the world you do not yet know. It's the books that dispense with rigor and proportion that let your imagination billow out, and go exploring. They give you time, space, empire, power; an existence answerable to your wishes as your own really is not. Their freedom from what really is becomes your freedom, very directly. They give you scope." - 178

Monday, October 21, 2013


Abhorsen (Abhorsen, #3)Abhorsen by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Accompanied by a faithful Dog and a faithless cat, Lirael and Sameth step into their predestined roles, finally leaving behind childhood fears and doubts in the face of an overwhelming enemy.

There is less breathing room here for the characters than in Lirael, and it's a more complex and epic showdown than what we saw in Sabriel. Nix wastes little time in sending the young aunt and her newly discovered nephew racing to stop the necromancer Hedge from raising the ultimate evil. They go from danger to danger, culminating in a final showdown (in many ways, this book's action reminds me strongly of The Lord of the Rings), surrounded by life-sucking undead raised by Hedge. (Looking for a great Halloween zombie novel? Look no further!)

Lirael grows almost immediately into her role of Abhorsen-in-Waiting, shouldering the responsibility with the grim determination of someone strengthened after years of feeling like a misfit. Sameth, too, relieved to find it is not his job to face the dead, recovers his courage and is eager to prove himself. Meanwhile, the Disreputable Dog and Moggett the cat are obviously holding back information even as they help out; and in non-magical Ancelstierre, Queen Sabriel and King Touchstone are trying to protect thousands of Southerling refugees from becoming necromancer fodder.

We finally get to traverse the full geography of Death, and the inventiveness of Nix's vision is compelling. The Ninth Gate is beautiful after the terrors of dark water and monsters that make up the other eight gates. There are only a few other authors who make the afterlife so fascinating and convincing - only The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis comes to mind (though of course, the idea of nine separate zones really comes from Dante's Inferno).

A collection of short stories called Across the Wall gives a little more about Sameth's intensely unlucky friend Nick, though I recall it as mildly unsatisfying. (It's only one story!) I'm left with so many questions: for example, we barely get to see the indomitable Ellimere in action, and we only get a tiny hint of Hedge's own beginnings down the dark road of necromancy. Plus, I want to know what other cool stuff Sameth might tinker, and what Moggett will do next. So many questions!

Garth Nix has tons of other great series and stand-alones to check out. If you've already read every one of his books, try out the wonderful YA fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, starting with Howl's Moving Castle or Charmed Life (the first of the Chrestomanci stories). She's equally brilliant and gifted.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Quotable: The Child That Books Built

"When I caught mumps, I couldn't read; when I went back to school again, I could. The first page of The Hobbit was a thicket of symbols, to be decoded one at a time and joined hesitantly together. Primary schools in Britain now sometimes send home a photocopy of a page of Russian or Arabic to remind parents of that initial state when writing was a wall of spiky unknowns, an excluding briar hedge. By the time I reached The Hobbit's last page, though, writing had softened and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet, and become a transparent liquid, first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then ever thinner and more mobile, flowing faster and faster, until it reached me at the speed of thinking and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my own thoughts. I had undergone the acceleration into the written word that you also experience as a change in the medium. In fact, writing had ceased to be a thing - an object in the world - and become a medium, a substance you look through."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Seven Up

Seven Up (Stephanie Plum, #7)Seven Up by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Protecting a lovable stoner, trying to hunt down a lethal senior citizen, and figuring out if she's ready to marry Joe Morelli or to take Ranger up on his indecent offer...bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's life is chaotic as usual.

Plum is as bumbling as ever, facing the complications of the increasingly bizarre actions of Eddie DeChooch, a man Grandma Mazur's age who keeps slipping through Stephanie's fingers when she shows up to help him "reschedule his court date".

She's also wondering if she really wants to marry a cop, and has to cope with the unexpected arrival of her perfect older sister. Plus, two of her wacky tabacky-loving friends are in deep usual there's a lot of outrageous action that Plum fans will love. Plus Ranger being sexy.

If you're curious about the rest of the series, just check out my past reviews.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Quotable: The Child That Books Built

"Once books were sacred, literally: the regime of reading was set by the experience of reading scripture. But in the secular times of the last three centuries, which brought us printed words on every subject, print to screw into a ball and flip away after a single reading sometimes, the promise of revelation has splintered, and the splinters have fallen separately, without losing all of their original brightness. One smithereen (at least) has glimmered in the novel. With its conventions that mimic the three dimensions of the world off the page, and its simulation of time passing as measured by experience's ordinary clocks, we hope it can bring a fully uttered clarity to the living we do, which is, we know, so hard to disentangle and articulate."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Earwig and the Witch

Earwig and the WitchEarwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Strong-willed orphan Earwig is adopted by a witch and a temperamental man called the Mandrake: she must use all her wits to gain the upper hand in her odd new home.

Earwig has carved out a comfortable niche for herself at the orphanage she's grown up in and has no intention of allowing herself to be adopted. So you can imagine her surprise when she is swept off to a new home and quickly discovers that her adoptive mother is a witch who wants to use her for free labor. Earwig is not amused.

It's marked with all of Diana Wynne Jones's usual wit and charm, and it's illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. There's also a surprisingly subversive ending, though with a character like Earwig it should be expected. She's a match for Neil Gaiman's Coraline and the no-nonsense Victoria from Claire Legrand's The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. Any of these horror books would make a great addition to an October spooky story month.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Lirael (Abhorsen, #2)Lirael by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lirael is a Sightless misfit amongst the prophetic Clayr, but during her work at the dangerous Library she discovers that her destiny may lay elsewhere; helping the Abhorsen defeat the rise of the Dead.

This is a sequel to Sabriel, set nearly twenty years after the defeat of Kerrigor. We finally get to see the inside of the Clayr's Glacier, where Lirael has grown up as an orphan. She is self-pitying and isolated by her sense of being different - more than anything else, she longs to gain the Sight that will make her a full Clayr.

To keep herself occupied, she takes up a post in the Library, a place so dangerous that Librarians wear whistles and keep clockwork mice in their pockets to call for help. Lirael discovers a talent for Charter Magic and begins uncovering some of the many secrets of her Library. The Library is even cooler than the Abhorsen's House, and it's a setting I wanted to see more of, along with the Clayr's Glacier.

Sabriel and Touchstone are now rulers, with two grown heirs ready to take up their work. At least, until their son Sam is attacked by a powerful necromancer and deeply traumatized by the event. Sam is a perpetual worrywart whose brush with Death made him afraid of his own calling just as an ancient evil is rising to destroy his homeland. It takes Sam and Lirael a long time to connect, but it is clear that they will work together in the next book.

Added to Moggett the cat is the happy-go-lucky Disreputable Dog, who is the perfect friend for a lonely young girl. The depiction of two teenagers who feel anxious about their futures is spot-on, down to the self-pity and self-absorption that slowly gives away to a sense of greater purpose. I think that fans of the Bartimaeus trilogy (starting with The Amulet of Samarkand) would love this book, too. Of course, I'm planning on rereading the final book of the Abhorsen trilogy, Abhorsen.

"The Library was shaped like a nautilus shell, a continuous tunnel that wound down into the mountain in an ever-tightening spiral. This main spiral was an enormously long, twisting ramp that took you from the high reaches of the mountain down past the level of the valley floor, several thousand feet below."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Journey Around My Room and A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room

Journey Around My Room and a Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room (Hesperus Classics)Journey Around My Room and a Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is actually two books in one: both are the playful, tongue-in-cheek musings of a young French soldier confined to small quarters who takes on the style of travel narratives for considerably shorter journeys.

In A Journey Around My Room, de Maistre has been confined to 42 days of house arrest for dueling. But de Maistre knows how to make lemonade out of his lemons: he takes the opportunity to tour his own room as though it were a foreign country. In the introduction Alain de Botton puts it this way: "Wrapped in his dressing gown, satisfied by the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we've already seen."

Making excellent use of his classical education, de Maistre's prose is witty, urbane, sparkling - all those wonderful adjectives I don't get to use often enough when talking about nonfiction (though they always seem to come up with 18th-century French writers). He inspired Marcel Proust and later writers, and it's obvious why. I've added this book to my list of favorites, and look forward to rereading it someday soon.

The second book, A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room continues the story a few years later. We get to know the fates of Joannetti the servant and Rosine the faithful dog, but we also get another journey into de Maistre's mind as he contemplates the night sky.

As I was reading I was strongly reminded of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Written by an eleventh-century Japanese court lady, it has a similar effervescence and beauty - though a markedly different culture informs Shōnagon's writing. I think these two writers would have been a perfect match for each other, could they have met. (In my imaginary dinner party of great writers of the past I'd seat them together.)

De Maistre is an admirer of the satirical masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (more commonly called Tristram Shandy) by Lawrence Sterne, so that classic shaggy dog story may be a good fit if you enjoy de Maistre's two journeys.

It's best to let someone like de Maistre speak for himself - from A Journey:
"A nice fire, books, pen; how many resources there are against boredom!"

"When you start to investigate a question, you usually adopt a dogmatic tone since you have secretly already made up your mind [...]; but discussion awakens objections, and everything ends up in doubt."

"Today is the day when certain persons on whom I depend say they will restore me to freedom. As if they had taken freedom from me! As if it had been in their power to deprive me of it for a single moment, and to prevent me from exploring at will the vast space that always lies open before me! - They have forbidden me to roam around a city, a mere point in space; but they have left me with the whole universe: immensity and eternity are mine to command."

from A Nocturnal Expedition:
"And then, who can flatter himself that he will always live with the people he loves? Similar to those swarms of little flies that you see spinning in the air on fine summer evening, men meet by chance and for only a very short time. And they are lucky if, in their rapid movement, they are as skilfull as the flies and don't dash their heads against each other!"

"The horrible emotion of envy has only ever once, on one single occasion, entered my heart, and it was an envy of cranes. I followed them with jealous eyes to the limits of the horizon."

"If we assign limits to creation, however remote those limits may be, the universe appears to me no more than a glowing point in comparison with the immensity of empty space surrounding it, that dark and dreadful void in the midst of which it seems suspended like a solitary lamp."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Abaddon's Gate

Jim Holden and a fleet of ships representing the squabbling factions of humanity are headed out to face the mysterious Ring built by the alien protomolecule - if their own conflicts don't destroy them first.

Holden is being haunted by the incoherent ghost of Detective Miller even as he concentrates on holding together the Rocinante's improvised crew family. He has no intention of getting involved, but the universe seems to have other plans for him.

In the meantime we are introduced to a young woman bent on a mission of revenge who joins the crew of a ship making the journey to the Ring, her focus fixed on one man: Jim Holden. A fleet of ships aimed at the Ring carries an interfaith group of religious leaders - but it may also carry humanity's annihilation.

Even as the group of ships converges around the Ring, factions struggle with violence driven by the worst impulses of humanity: arrogance, fear, and obsession. The Ring has the power to alter the laws of physics, and it becomes apparent that the fumbling violence of the fleet could destroy all of humanity by tripping the Ring's defenses.

The action of this book (which is not necessarily the last of the series but does wrap up a few of the mysteries laid out in Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War) happens mainly on a commandeered generation ship. Formerly owned by Mormons who dreamed of traveling to the stars, the Nauvoo has been rechristened Behemoth and clumsily refitted into a military vessel. It's an appropriate metaphor for the journey of the characters, and of the human race in general. (At one point, realizing that he is headed toward the alien Ring, Holden compares himself to the prophet Jonah by quipping "Off to Ninevah!")

The chief danger confronting our fragile human characters is that of inertia - humans crushed by going too fast and then being brought to an unexpected halt, clever brains moving faster than bodies can handle. Another great metaphor, grounded in the physical realities of zero g space travel.

It's not as compelling as Leviathan, but I enjoy the way Corey grounds each part of the struggle in character. Their relationships to each other matter, and have huge ripple effects on the plot. It's actually an optimistic look at human nature that manages not to ignore all the worst aspects of our kind.

Spoilerish: I was hoping for more info on the gate makers, the civilization that built the protomolecule. Sadly, there's more mutiny and a little less awe and horror than in the first book. Turns out, we're our own worst enemy and we don't need space invaders as an excuse for violence.

Also: Sadly, no Bobbie Draper or Chrisjen Avasarala in this one. I did miss them, and hope they'll show up in another book, since I could see the authors writing more stories in the Expanse universe.

"Too many people with too many agendas, and everyone was worried that the other guy would shoot him in the back."

"It was a lesson he'd never forgotten. That humans only have so much emotional energy. No matter how intense the situation, or how powerful the feelings, it was impossible to maintain a heightened emotional state forever. Eventually you's just get tired and want it to end."

"Show a human a closed door, and no matter how many open doors she finds, she'll be haunted by what might be behind it."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Books Read in September

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson - Author Bryson takes us on a humorous trip back into his own 1950s childhood in Des Moines, Iowa: the days of comic books and the Cold War, when Americans were happiest: an era rife with paranoia and optimism in equal measure.

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin - Insightful and authoritative, this biography traces Charles Dickens from his harsh childhood to the heights of literary success and the depths of marital scandal, painting the portrait of an extraordinary man and artist.

Sabriel by Garth Nix - With her powerful necromancer father missing, Sabriel must take on the mantle of Abhorsen and return to her homeland to protect the living from the ravaging Dead.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters - Independent spinster Amelia Peabody and her friend Evelyn Barton-Forbes came to Egypt to view the antiquities - but when they are stalked by a mummy Amelia suspects it may be a non-supernatural ghost from Evelyn's checkered past.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer - What would happen if all of humanity was inexplicably resurrected after death on a vast alien world?

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen - Journalist and bibliophile Anna Quindlen recounts her own thoughts and experiences on what it means to live the reading life.

The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip José Farmer - Newly resurrected with all of humanity on an alien planet, Sam Clemens attempts to build a steamboat to find The River's end.

What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark - When River and his friends discover a rare zucchini-colored crayon in a discarded sofa, they are launched into a fight to save Earth.

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb - In a thrilling international manhunt, a group of Israeli secret service agents risked everything to bring Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann to justice.

Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara - An influential American poet of the New York School, O'Hara's poetry is at once intimate and abstract.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee - In this elegant blend of history and science, a practicing oncologist reveals the hidden history of cancer: a story riddled with painstaking research, leaps of insight, and the seemingly endless instances of human suffering and endurance.

Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey - Jim Holden and a fleet of ships representing the squabbling factions of humanity are headed out to face the mysterious Ring built by the alien protomolecule - if their own conflicts don't destroy them first.

Journey Around My Room and A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre - This is actually two books in one: both are the playful, tongue-in-cheek musings of a young French soldier confined to small quarters who takes on the style of travel narratives for considerably shorter journeys.