I felt justified in listing writing under “Skills” on my recently refurbished résumé. After all, I exercise my ability to put words on a page most mornings by churning out seven hundred and fifty words of uncensored thought, as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and facilitated by www.750words.com; I’ve written a few short stories and drafted a few (admittedly terrible) novels; occasionally I even write about what I read and post it on the Internet. I recently realized, however, that there exists a dire discrepancy between the time I spend writing and the time I spend editing. On this blog, for example, the total published posts are outnumbered by the rough drafts which will never see the light. (This is the third post to be labeled “Clearing the Shelves, Part II”, so perhaps sequential titling isn’t a good strategy for me.) As effective as my “morning pages” have been in combating writer’s block, I sometimes feel a little chagrin at the stylistic sloppiness such a habit has left unchecked.
In misfortune there is opportunity, no? After the beginning of the knee pain that followed two weeks of slightly overenthusiastic running (I’ll start with interval training next time, I promise), I began reading as though that was my best ticket out of life-transition-induced depression. Consequently, I got through about at least foot of books in January. In trying to keep this post to a manageable length, I’ve gotten even more practice in editing than I expected: first this review was of all of the books I finished in January, then of just the fiction, and then of all the fiction that didn’t raise deep questions about the nature and functions of fantasy as a genre. While it may take me some days to post it all, I’ve gotten even more editing practice than I expected. (Success. Sort of.) These five fiction books all came from my crate of unread books; all but one ended up in the canvas tote bag bound for Mr. K’s Used Books.
- Last Song before Night, Ilana C. Meyer
- Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett
- The Truth, Terry Pratchett
- The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, John le Carré
- The Promise, Chaim Potok
Last Song before Night, which I added to an Amazon wish list after reading some enthusiastic reviews, was easy to part with. It’s a fantasy story in which magic and music are mingled, and I was hoping for something as compelling as Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind or the YA Seraphina series by Rachel Hartman; however, a comparison between Meyer and Rothfuss highlights the shortcomings of Last Song. Meyer’s characterization is, like Rothfuss’s, a little patchy. A few characters stick in my mind almost a month after closing the book (one of them a disturbing sadist whom I’d prefer to forget), but scattered among the crowd are some seriously Mary Sue-ish talents and some stereotypes whose primary function is to allow Meyer to make some kind of point about contemporary society. I’m all for fiction that leads readers to assess their own assumptions or their culture’s dominant narratives, but Last Song doesn’t do that subtly or skillfully. Meyer’s invented world isn’t a particularly compelling take on fourteenth-century alt-Europe with magic added. Her writing has uneven pacing, some predictable beats, and a contemporary casual style without much either clarity or poetry (Rothfuss’s style, for comparison, is loaded with enough lyricism for a twenty-first century Thomas Wolfe doing swords, spells, and adventure). In short: don’t buy the reviews, and don’t buy the book either. Do yourself a favor and go read The Name of the Wind if you’re looking for contemporary fantasy about musicians–then help me crowdfund an editor for Rothfuss who will make him trim his books properly.
Ilana C. Meyer was too recent a writer for me to be able to predict the quality of her writing from her reputation; Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, is legendary as the Wodehouse of modern fantasy. I’m glad I finally got around to reading the two Pratchett novels a friend passed on to me a few summers ago, although working through my feelings about the vampire pastiche Carpe Jugulum proved surprisingly involved and long-winded; I’ll post those reflections on good and evil in fantasy as soon as I figure out just what I think about Granny Weatherwax.* I have less to say about The Truth, but perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give is that it’s the only one of the books I read in January that I plan to keep.
That’s not just because I enjoyed Pratchett’s endless news- and word-related puns on William de Worde, founder of Discworld’s first newspaper; nor is it just because I liked the humorous, Raymond Chandler-esque, magical gritty city better than Carpe Jugulum‘s mountainous Kingdom of Lancre. Pratchett’s characterization in this book, of both heroes and villains, is excellent, nowhere more so than with William. At first he seems like a pretty generic version of Aimless Young Male Protagonist, Just Starting His Hero’s Journey. The Truth certainly is William’s hero’s journey, and he certainly grows up over the course of the novel. But the way Pratchett gradually reveals (mostly through the thoughts and dialogue of William’s friends) that William’s inexperience with the world extends beyond knowledge of how to run a newspaper, into both ignorance of injustice and insensitivity in handling it–all of this is very well executed. By the end of the novel, William has grown in courage and competence but still doesn’t know who he is. The reader does, and that’s part of what makes William an interesting character. I replaced The Truth on the shelf so that I can enjoy all the newspaper quips again sometime, and so that I can sit down and study just how Pratchett illustrates different characters so well.
I turned from Terry Pratchett to John le Carré with some trepidation. The first le Carré book I read was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a laborious read which involved at least three false starts and a great deal of confusion. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is, despite also being a story about Cold War espionage, quite a different book. Where Tinker, Tailor felt like an impossible maze of characters, identified more often by physical characteristics than by name, the narration in Spy Who Came In sticks closely to just two characters. The game those characters are playing is also more straightforward than Smiley’s dilemma in Tinker, Tailor; consequently, the reader can spend less time unraveling the plot and more time paying attention to Alec and Liz. Le Carré’s writing is lean and understated rather than flowery, and highly effective in capturing the grim atmosphere of East Germany and in giving the reader an occasionally ironic distance from his characters’ opinions. (In his memoire, he credits the clarity of his style to a supervisor from his early days as a spy–not a profession that came up when my high school English teacher extolled the practical applications of good writing.) It’s not a happy or romanticized story of the Cold War, but it is a gripping one. A quick read and an unforgettable conclusion; highly recommended.
Although Chaim Potok’s The Promise was written within a few years of Spy Who Came In, it is a world away from the thrills of espionage. The Promise is primarily a story about being Jewish in twentieth-century America, and much of its tension involves textual criticism and interpretation of ancient religious writings. As a Christian who has lately been spending some quality time with the Greek New Testament, I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s scholars getting into heated debates about the validity of textual emendations to the Torah. What makes The Promise an interesting book even for those indifferent to stemmatics and manuscript traditions, however, is the way that Potok interweaves an apparently abstract, impersonal question (“how ought we to wrestle with the difficult aspects of our sacred texts?”) with the book’s very personal family dramas. As in The Chosen, an earlier book with the same protagonists, Potok is rather more enamored of Freud than later psychologists are (or than I am, for that matter); the reliance on Freud is occasionally irritating, given that one of the subplots involves a psychologically troubled teenager. Nevertheless it’s a fascinating story of sons and scholars that comes together in the last few chapters in an emotionally satisfying conclusion. To paraphrase one of the characters in The Promise: you can “hear the Song of Songs”, the author’s love of the Torah, in the way he writes. Whatever your religion, it’s a beautiful and somewhat unusual theme to encounter in a novel.
*Hypothesis: If a story is not to be a tragedy, then the fate of its characters who embrace evil must be either defeat or redemption. All the stories I can think of in which the villains/monsters don’t meet one of these fates (or potentially some weird combination thereof?) are tragedies–if you can come up with an exception to this rule, please share it in the comments! Otherwise I’m going to forge ahead with the somewhat bizarre argument that Carpe Jugulum is actually a tragedy in disguise….