Tag Archives: Literary Fiction

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

grossmanThe Magician King by Lev Grossman

Viking Press, New York, 2011

From my TBR pile.  My first book for the Once Upon A Time VII challenge.

I read The Magicians last year and found it just okay.  Early reviews mentioned “Harry Potter for adults”.  The novel is about a New York City teenager, Quinton Coldwater, who while thinking he is  applying for university is  surprised with an invitation to attend Brakesbills College, a kind of ivy league Hogwarts.  Quinton, along with other “Physical” students,  spends years in class, learning spell casting, and enjoying first loves, sex, drugs and drinking.  Eventually several of the students enter the land of Fillory, an “imaginary” place from a series of  beloved children’s book very much like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.  Maybe it was the referential use of this classic series that made me a bit squeamish.

I found the second book  much more satisfying.  It centers on two of the characters from the first book, Quinton and Julia, and brings historic depth and clarity to their behavior and their choices.  There is better storytelling, more fantasy, with strong roots in folklore and mythology.  I think Grossman worked hard to bring his characters to life and strengthen the magic.   I am hoping that there will be more books to come because  I’d like to know what happens to these young people.

The goddess was warm, even humorous, and loving, but she had a second aspect, terrible in its bleakness: a mourning aspect that she assumed in winter, when she descended into the underworld, away from the light.  There were different versions of the story.  In some she grew angry at all mankind and hid herself underground half the year out of rage.  In some she lost one of her dryad-daughters and retired to Hades in grief.  In others the goddess was fooled by some Loki-type trickster-god and bound to spend half the year hiding her warmth and fruitfulness in the underworld, against her will.  But in each version her dual nature was clear.  She was the goddess of darkness as well as light.   A Black Madonna:  the blackness of death, but also the blackness of good soil, dark with decay, which gives rise to life.  From page 325.

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Filed under 2013 TBR Double Dog Dare, DarkFantasy, Fantasy, LiteraryFiction, Once Upon A Time VII

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

Random House, New York, 1990

Borrowed from my library. Winner of the 1990 Man Booker Prize.

Another book I waited a long time to read.  I think I was intimidated by the mid-Victorian poetry angle, but I should have known.  It is A.S. Byatt.  Possession is a masterpiece.

A young academic, Roland Mitchell, stumbles upon drafts of unknown letters written by his research subject, romantic poet Randolf Henry Ash.  The drafts hint of a unknown relationship with a young women.  From this tiny hint, Roland discovers a possible link between Ash and poet, Christabel LaMotte and is pulled into a literary mystery that is layered, humorous and massively intelligent.   This novel is a deep exploration of romance,  love and possession.   What those emotions could have looked like in the past and how they can manifest in the present.  It is also a parody of modern academia,  pop culture and the cult of personality.

Complete with love letters and invented verse , Byatt uses the full range of her literary abilities.  Most chapters begin with bits of invented poems, myths or fairy tales.   Her poets, writing in the style of  Victorian romance, use language differently.  At one point she has a young French cousin of Christabel write a journal.  Again, the voice is completely different, drenched in the language of the time and expressing the cultural differences between a young lady raised in England and one raised in France.  I was constantly amazed at A.S. Byatt’s mix of history, literary knowledge and her ability with words.

Possession is also a love letter, to language, to reading and to writing of all sorts.  I was quickly drawn in, found myself moving backwards and forwards in the text, copying words, making notes and fully intend to read this book again.  Roland’s thoughts on re-reading Randalf Hanry Ash’s words discribe something of what I felt reading parts of Possession:

    There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples.  There are personal readings which snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear.  There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onward and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.

Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the acknowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or  satisfactorily,  runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.  From pages 511/512.

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Filed under A.S. Byatt, British, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Ecco, HarperCollins, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my local library.  A 2011 New York Times Notable book.

I first discovered Russell Banks when a friend and I went to see The Sweet Hereafter.  It was a film that had me wanting to read the book, a rare occurrence.  Since that time I’ve read several novels by Russell Banks and enjoyed them.  There is always an undercurrent of tension that runs through his work, like the hidden currents in a rip tide poised to drag away an unweary swimmer.  He is willing to look at things we often turn  away from.

In Lost Memory of Skin Banks writes of a part of our society we would rather hold distant and separate from our lives.  Under a causeway in a coastal Florida city there is an encampment.  Men convicted of sexual crimes, having served their sentences and been released from prison, live there.  It is the only place in the city that is 2,500 feet from anywhere that children might gather.  Here we meet the Kid, twenty-two years old and just released on parole.   He is camped out with other offenders, a mixed group thrown together in the only place in the city where they can legally live.   The Kid is lost, knows he messed up.  Still a virgin, he’s been charged with a sexual crime through his own stupidity.  He’s figuring things out, trying to learn the rules.

     He  likes the distinction: there’s good and there’s evil.  Evil is worse than bad.  And it’s a lot worse than merely dumb or unlucky or illegal.  That’s what makes God’s rules superior to all other rules: if you break one you’re not just dumb or even bad, you’re fucking evil!  You have knowingly disobeyed God.  To be evil is to be bad in an extreme way – sentenced to life without parole and locked up in hell for eternity when you die.  If you believe in hell, that is.  Which the Kid does although he does not believe in heaven.  Same as with God whom the Kid believes in when things go right but not when things go wrong.  Which doesn’t make him an atheist exactly or an agnostic.  Just inconsistent.  From page 75.

As the Kid struggles with who exactly he is he is approached by a huge man who claims to be a professor wanting to do research on the homeless, on sex offenders.  As they spend time talking we learn some of the Kid’s back story.

Raised by an uncaring mother, left alone to fend for himself, he discovered online porn at a young age.  His only comfort an iguana named Iggy, he soon looses himself to the small screen.  Completely emotionally detached from others, he lives with the “lost memory of skin” that is pornography on the internet.  Time spent talking with the Professor, a man who has his own secrets and compulsions, allows the Kid to gain some understanding of his past as well as some possibilities for the future.   He begins to understand that there may, in fact, be a future.

Now slowly he’s starting to realize that he might not be exceptional but at least he’s important for being who he is, that he’s not really like the mass of mankind from the beginning of time whose entire lives and everything they chose to do or not to do is determined by their givens, the conditions and circumstances they were born into and the people they found there to accompany them in life.  Until now the only living creatures who seemed to care what he did or thought and were therefore affected by his actions and thoughts were Iggy and Einstein the parrot and Annie the dog as if the Kid wer closer to being reptile, bird or four-legged animal then a human being alive and conscious in time with a beginning, middle and end to his life, all three parts existing simultaneously in each separate part.  His subjective life – his accumulated memories, wishes, fears, and reflections in the last few days – ha started taking on an importance to him that it had never held before.  And consequently he’s begun to have a new interest in the subjective lives of the people who are connected with him starting with the Professor but including the men who live alongside him under the causeway.  Even the Shyster whose story up to now he has had no desire to know since he had no story of his own to compare it to.  From pages 225/226.

Russell Banks is willing to shine a light on characters who do despicable things out of ignorance and he offers readers a way to view these characters compassionately.   We live in a culture were we choose to spend a lot of our time online in one form or another, disconnected from reality and plugged into the internet without really weighing the risks of such a choice.  Nothing makes this clearer to me than the growth of online pornography and the complacency that surrounds it.   Lost Memory of Skin is a novel about this culture, about American society in the early part of the 21st century.  It will be in my top 10 list for 2012.

Mr.  Banks states that he often writes about “the unintended consequences of good intentions”.  There is a wonderful interview about the writing of Lost Memory of Skin here.

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Filed under LiteraryFiction, Notable Books, Thoughts

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Harcourt, Inc., New York, 2007

Borrowed from my library.

A strange, suspenseful novel that touches on current issues between east and west, The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens as  Changez, a Pakistani man who has spent time in school and at work in the US, approaches an American on the street in Lahore.

     Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?  Ah, I see I have alarmed you.  Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.  I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.  From page 1.

Changez invites the stranger to a cafe, tells him of his years in college in the US, of his job with a financial firm and his relationship with an American women.  Throughout this story he tells of  his struggles with choices, of his distancing from his home and his culture, almost with a sense of self-revulsion.  He pauses to address the stranger, questions his background, his reason for being there, then returns to his tale.  He is disturbed by his own response to 9/11, but the world and his place in it shifts after that event.

This is an odd quirky book  layered with anger and black humor.  The stranger never says a word, we don’t know what his mission is.  We’re not sure of Changez’ politics.  is he simply a college lecturer or an Islamic fundamentalist?  Are these two men assassins sitting across the table from one another?   Their late night walk back to the stranger’s hotel seems to answer this question, but does it, really?

As I read I kept thinking of Scheherazade.  Is this story a seduction? When it ends will someone die? Hamid gives his character’s voice that kind of power.  I enjoyed this strange thriller and recommend it to those interested in unusual literary form.  Just don’t expect any clear answers.

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Filed under LiteraryFiction, Review, Thriller