Tag Archives: fiction

Point Omega — Don DeLillo

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Don DeLillo does with language what Arvo Pärt does with music. Their work yields little when casually approached. But it rewards close attention with spare and beautiful lines capable of containing truth. Point Omega was a pleasure to read for its pure artistry, if not for its compelling characters.

The characters are barely limned in this slim novel. Richard Elster is an aging academic who spent some time drafted to help create a language with which to sell the Iraq War to the American public. He worked with top level political strategists, looking for a linguistic architecture to frame the war, to give it shape and meaning. Disillusioned in the end, he has retreated to the remote California desert, a landscape so sere and austere that it is as powerful as a character in this book.

Jim Finley is a much younger filmmaker who wants to place Elster against an industrial wall in Brooklyn and film him talking about his experience, his deep cogitation about it and his conclusions about what it all means. Finley joins Elster in his ramshackle dwelling in the desert where time loses all significance and philosophical questions are endlessly debatable over drinks on the porch.

When Elster’s twentyish dreamy daughter arrives from New York, sent away by her mother after a sinister date begins to stalk her by telephone, the dynamic of the story shifts. Elster has been postulating, in and out of his cups, about the absence of time in the desert and the Teilhardian concept of the omega point when the human imagination has exhausted itself and something cataclysmic occurs. The philosophical choices seem to be oblivion or a profound illumination. Finley is no closer to convincing Elster to document his own soul and story and Elster appears to be disappearing into the stark landscape.

Then something cataclysmic does happen but it is in no way theoretical and profundities are rendered meaningless by its mystery. Elster’s daughter disappears. One day they return from picking up groceries and she simply isn’t there. The search for the “otherworldly” Jessica lends some drama to the story but no answers. Tragedy takes away words. Elster no longer speaks. Finley can’t remember the passionate obsession with making his film. Search helicopters break the desert silence.

The events in Point Omega are framed by another kind of stillness, an art installation in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is played in a bare room in a gallery, slowed and stretched to fill 24 hours. The excruciating slow motion mesmerizes a faceless character who returns to the gallery day after day to stand in a corner and experience the obliteration of known time. The silent, painstaking screening, detailed at length in the beginning and end of the story, inspires more contemplation of the nature of reality and perception.

This is a beautiful book, packed with Big Questions about life and meaning but not overly concerned with plots and people. DeLillo is a pure pleasure to read but the usual pleasures of slipping into a book are absent here. You are in thrall to DeLillo’s deserts, the real and the metaphoric ones. The journey will leave you uneasy, impressed and a little bit empty–rich in images and no closer to the truth than when you ghosted into the nameless gallery with Norman Bates on the first page.

 Point Omega  Don DeLillo | Scribner 2010

Chalice – Robin McKinley

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Chalice is a different reading experience from the Robin McKinley versions of classic fairytales like Beauty and the Beast. It really is another world and it takes some time to sort out what is going on and what it means. Once you work your way in, you are hooked, though, and it’s a fast clip through the action of the plot to the very satisfying finish.

In the demesne of Willowlands, Mirasol is a beekeeper from one of the old families. She hears the earthlines murmur and protest and her abilities land her the position of Chalice when the Master and the Chalice die in some disaster of disharmony with the forces of nature they govern. The demesnes are kept whole and balanced by the Master, Chalice and Circle—each has a specific role. The Chalice must bind the land and people and the Master together to create a profound harmony but Marisol despairs because there is no Master and she does not have the long years of apprenticship that prepare someone for her role. As she struggles to absorb myriad arcane rules and protocols and provide the service required of a Chalice, she takes frequent refuge in her small woodright and tends her bees. Bees and honey she knows better than anything else—Marisol’s honey is the best in Willowlands and it has energizing and healing powers.

And then the Circle sends for the old Master’s younger brother to be the new Master. The younger son of another old lineage, he was shipped off to become a Priest of Fire when his arrogant brother became Master. Now he returns to protect the land and no one knows if someone who is far into the process of becoming Fire can even be around humans or safeguard Willowlands. An accidental touch from him will sear flesh right to the bone.

Intrigue abounds. Outsiders arrive to wrest control from the half-Fire, half-human Master.  Marisol tries to win the trust of the people and perform the Chalice rituals that keep the land from tearing apart. The story is amazing, unexpected, beautifully written and engaging. It’s fantasy but not a classic fairytale. There is trickery, romance, challenge, cataclysmic upheaval and villainy to deal with. Marisol inadvertently commits a grievous error that could destroy the land and will certainly wreck her own life. It’s an odd story but never a dull one.

Robin McKinley must live in another realm entirely when she writes these books. Chalice is such a completely realized world—and such a complex and foreign one—that I can’t imagine how she moves into that space to write and then emerges to have lunch or talk to ordinary people. Bravo to her for pulling it off, though. The bees are a force to be reckoned with and so, in the end, is the beekeeper. You can almost taste the honey, feel the fire and the fear, and see the spells that heal villagers and rifts in the land as the Chalice works her uncertain magic, hoping somehow it will be enough.  

Chalice    Robin McKinley | Firebird  2008

Beatrice and Virgil — Yann Martel

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Yann Martel is back in animal allegory with Beatrice and Virgil, a tale about a dead donkey and a stuffed monkey that might be a stand-in for the Holocaust, might be an extended examination of writer’s block, might be a plea on behalf of disappearing wildlife or might be an argument for using art to reveal the truth of history.

This is Martel’s long-awaited third novel, following 2002’s Life of Pi which won the Man Booker Prize and widespread acclaim. Pi, a story about a young castaway in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, examined some weighty ideas as well but it was, ultimately, a charming and accessible book. Beatrice and Virgil is accessible, at times beautiful, but not exactly charming.

A writer named Henry has worked for five years on the book to follow his award-winning, bestselling second novel that features wild animals and…So we know that Martel took five years to write this book but wait, it’s not that easy. The fictional author has hoped to capture the Holocaust in a flip book—one-half fiction and one-half essay. His publishers crush that idea and he crawls into a depression that keeps his hands off the keys and his mind occupied with waiting on customers at a café, working in an amateur theatrical group, taking long walks with his shelter dog and sitting for hours petting his shelter cat. His wife is an industrious and practical soul who interjects a note of sanity once in a while and retains her self-protective instincts.

Henry continues to receive fan mail for the successful book that he dutifully answers. One envelope contains a highlighted version of a Flaubert story about torturing animals and a few sides of a script about talking animals who are describing the experience of a pear. The scripted animals are lifted straight from Waiting for Godot—their conversation has the same irresistible cadence and logic, their personalities contain a vulnerable childlike quality that endears them. Eventually we learn–in dialog and stage directions that evoke Nazi Germany and the extermination of the Jews–that Beatrice and Virgil are starving to death and trying to escape torturers and murderers. The package contains a three-line plea for help and is signed by someone named Henry, surname illegible.

Blocked-writer Henry tracks down playwright-Henry and discovers a wondrous taxidermy shop with a taciturn octogenarian owner-taxidermist, a collection of rare and endangered fauna that could outclass a natural history museum, a stuffed duo named Beatrice, the donkey, and Virgil, a red howler monkey, who are guides not unlike Dante’s through an imagined heaven and an experienced hell.

The writing is marvelous. The sad scenes are heartbreaking. The mounting sense of evil is disturbing. The excruciating detail observed is revelatory and impressive. The extreme borrowing from Beckett is a treasure because Beckett did it so well, but somewhat off-putting because Beckett did it so well. I hated the end. The end was, to me, melodramatic, abrupt and out of sync with the rest of the book and the gradual emergence of meaning. After the main tale ends, a coda of thirteen hideous riddles–“games” supplied at the taxidermist’s request by blocked-writer Henry–returns the focus to the Holocaust and resonates more evenly with the rest of the book. 

Martel has a son named Theo, the name Henry gives to his newborn son in the book. Martel has a scholar’s grab bag of impressive literary references, as do his characters. Martel can write a scene of torture and subjugation that will take your skin off. Still, Life of Pi was satisfying, erudite and oddly magical. Beatrice and Virgil is fluid but difficult and disjointed. Maybe it’s the uncomfortable subject matter—the “Horrors” of the donkey and the monkey stand in for specific genocidal horrors of our own society. The animals pass the time minutely observing the world around them, bringing the observed and the remembered to vivid life. Martel makes the point that when we fail to really see, we too easily destroy. A skinny book—a mercy to a time-challenged daily reader–but not an easy read.

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel   Yann Martel | Spiegel & Grau   2010

The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley

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Robin McKinley does literate fantasy with enormous intelligence and a sure command of story. Her re-imaginations of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty are revelatory and emotionally satisfying. Her heroines are strong and believable in ways more female protagonists should be. The Hero and the Crown won a Newbery Medal for its characters as much as its flawless craft. The story draws you into a world that seems real from its first detail to its last litter of puppies in the middle of the royal featherbed. It is Aerin’s story but it is a classic hero’s journey and every girl who reads it should get a few ideas. Every boy who reads it should re-examine a few.

Aerin is the king’s daughter, child of a mother who died at her birth, a mother who was considered by the good folk of Damaria to be a witch. So Aerin’s place in the kingdom is far from assured and she is the merciless taunt of her gorgeous and shallow cousin who schemes for power and position. The people believe Aerin may be a witch-child, a sol who has no apparent magical gifts, uncommon blazing red hair and white skin and a tendency toward unladylike pursuits.

From earliest childhood, Aerin has been inseparable from her friend Tor, the appointed first sola or heir to a king with no male children. Tor teaches her swordplay and confides in her but even Tor can’t define where Aerin fits in and what she is meant to be. She heals and tames her father’s injured war horse who has been turned out to pasture, teaching herself to ride hands-free and wield sword and spear on horseback. When she discovers an old formula for a fire-shielding ointment, she determines to perfect the recipe and become a dragon-killer—the dragons being fiercely volcanic vermin that terrorize the countryside, although they bear little resemblance to the legendary flying monsters that are long gone from Damaria.

Arlbeth, the king, refuses to take his daughter to battle with threatening dissidents from the North so Aerin sets out in secret to destroy Maur, the horrifying Black Dragon now returned, a massive evil presence laying waste to villages and farms at the outskirts of the kingdom. Her adventures are epic, her encounters deadly and the consequences of the lethal struggle with Maur set events in motion that spin wildly through tragedy, deep magic, heroism and destruction to the story’s conclusion.

McKinley has written another terrific tale, a fantasy with no fairytale princess but a tough, smart and battle-scarred heroine who shies away from the people who mistrust her and is desperate to prove her place. Aerin is funny, irreverent and brave. She is also impulsive, awkward and a miserable dancer. Her uncanny empathy with animals and the powerful magic she doesn’t realize she has propel her on a journey into a Tolkienesque hell that she undertakes as if fate compels her. Fate does. Aerin is no ordinary mortal but she is an extraordinary heroine and her quest captivates us. I rooted for her, even as I wanted to shout, “Go back! This is a really bad idea!” But there is no turning back. The losses are losses that can’t be redeemed; the victories are bittersweet. The story unspools as intensely visual as a film and I was sorry to leave the world McKinley created as I turned the last page.

 The Hero and the Crown    Robin McKinley | Firebrand 2002

The Matisse Stories – A.S. Byatt

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Matisse is as good a conduit for a story as any, and better than most. In The Matisse Stories, A.S. Byatt brings her prodigious eye for the telling detail and her finely tuned ear for nuance to three tales about ordinary people at moments of transformation. The transformation is deep change but not necessarily welcome, beneficent or divine. Each, however, takes place in the dusty, messy detritus of the quotidian and the very ordinariness of the characters and their settings makes what happens believable.

In Medusa’s Ankles, a middle-aged woman in a long term relationship with a hip hair salon is drawn to the Matisse poster over the coat rack – and drawn into the untidy personal life of the salon owner who cuts her hair. The shifting décor of the salon mirrors the banal disintegration of the status quo with its rosy, comforting hues frozen in time. Events spiral into ugly, trendy color schemes, a recognition that the clock keeps ticking in the background and that superficial relationships generally signal superficial, selfish people. Medusa of the serpentine hair is heading toward a mean pair of kankles as she explodes in rage and wrecks the vision around her. But the aftermath of unleashing all that emotion is that she is finally seen. And perhaps learns to see what was in front of her all along.

Art Work is a more vibrant piece, as colorful as full-blown Matisse with his color box wide open. Just as a painting may be more, or less, than it seems, a domestic scene is bound to be hiding roiling ambition, envy, competition, life hungry for more, brighter, bigger beneath its tranquil surface. The madman in the attic is just a pedestrian artist who hides behind his limited vision and churns out failed piece after failed piece while his wife supports the family. She is a design editor juggling kids, household and the help with a demanding job and a longing to return to the art making of her youth. The help is a wacky Mrs. Brown who is far more vivid than her name, scavenging cast-offs from which she makes clashing, crazy outfits, half-knitted, half-assembled. A visit from a gallery owner is the catalyst that spills a paint box over this daily sameness, upending all delusions and suppositions and washing events in vermillion, chartreuse, magenta, teal. The canvas is ripped, mended and re-imagined and a new picture emerges. Maybe a better one but always with the pentimento of choices and consequences lurking underneath.

The Chinese Lobster is as exquisitely rendered as a brush painting. The live seafood slowly dying in the waterless tank, the delectable Chinese food, the fastidious professors, passions and pasts cloaked by respectable facades that are as real as what they screen from view, all captured in words. Byatt is brilliant at that. But depressing, too.

I devoured Possession, her best selling Booker Prize-winning novel about poetry, romance, mystery and the living pulse of Victorian language. I appreciated Still Life and The Virgin in the Garden but was less taken with the experience of living in those books. I attributed that to something superficial and shallow in my nature – a well-educated scholar, a superior intelligence would be just as thrilled with less “commercial” books, I thought. Nevertheless, I don’t enjoy escape into drabness and the wisdom of accepting limitations.

The Chinese Lobster tackles the fate of a troubled college art student, hanging in the balance over lunch as two university teachers review her obsession with and rejection of Matisse. What we see is an unappealing, possibly mentally-ill student, and the motivations and limitations of two adult characters, each articulate, thoughtful and desperate to keep their own demons under wraps. As they circle around the crisis of the student and weave logic over their hidden terrors and affronted sensibilities, they come to accept that they will choose survival over the grand gesture. Matisse, going blind and training himself to paint the depths of blackness, possessed the rare genius to make accommodation into art. No one in this story attempts to fill the tank with water. It would be hopeless – where would seawater come from, how would a creature too far gone to save survive, why upset the practical logic of a modest restaurant in which lobsters exist to be eaten, not painted or set free or even admired?   

  The Matisse Stories    A.S. Byatt | Vintage Books  1996

Falling Man — Don DeLillo

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Before I started booklolly in earnest, I experimented with a few days of reading and blogging to see if I could read a book a day. It was tough but definitely doable and, being the sort of person who heads right into the thick of a guerrilla war to discover the truth about it, I created a blog and sat down to read. This book is one of the early experiments–saved it because the book is interesting and the read was relevant to its location and the day I read it. 

I grabbed Don DeLillo’s Falling Man from a display shelf at the library, thinking it would be the perfect novel to read on September 11th. I confess to my own hardcover copy of Underworld, spine cracked but never really started due to single-parent-small-child-around-house-who-has-time-to-read-huge-books-? syndrome. It isn’t getting read for this challenge either because there aren’t enough hours in one day and DeLillo is worth reading slowly enough to savor. That said, Falling Man was probably not the best choice for 9-11.

Everyone has their story about where they were and what they were doing on that day, at that moment, and most particularly when the towers came down. I have mine. I have the futile attempt to protect a four-year-old from too much knowledge, too burning a memory of that day. I have the images—the man in a suit, clutching a briefcase and covered in white ash, trudging up Central Park West hours after, not looking, not seeing, just walking. He might have been DeLillo’s Keith, minus the glass shards and the blood.

What was ripped apart on that day was the fabric of the world we imagined we lived in. Just ripped like the old canvas of a circus tent, ripped right across your heart. The grief was sharp, personal and inexplicable—meaning I could never explain it and still can’t. Meaning certain sights will always bring tears to my eyes and shadows hover not far out of sight, ready to cast a pall. Sadness and loss are tangible things; they drain all the energy from the day and from your body. September 11th, ten years later, spun the wheel backwards and it was as if the planes veered out of the blue into black smoke, flames and everything falling  just yesterday.

So, Falling Man. Very very beautiful and true in its detail and a potent reminder. Keith walks down the stairs, away from the buildings, out of the mushroom cloud of debris and dust, to the apartment of his estranged wife who is sure he died in the towers where he worked. In some way, he did. In the same way, Lianne stops feeling safe, moves in a dream through the streets to the emergency room, accepts the husband who reappears in her life by accident and then cannot leave. Lianne is haunted by her father’s Alzheimer’s and his refusal to watch his memory fade. Lianne’s mother is deliberately fading before her eyes. Lianne’s child, and Keith’s, Justin, is self-composed beyond his years and has his own stories about what happened on 9-11. He takes binoculars on playdates to search the skies out the window for planes.

Even those who escaped the inferno and the collapse never escaped from that moment and that day. DeLillo’s people replay their memories like an endless tape loop, revisit their own minds for what they can’t remember, don’t bother to reinvent themselves, seem incapable of moving on. There is healing from events so huge and so terrible that they stop time but this nation did not choose healing and these characters can’t find it. There is loss that saturates everything it touches and lingers in the air. Falling Man slowly collects the fragments of that day and holds them up to the light. Bits and pieces surface and fade back into the rubble of memory. Lives bob, float and swirl in the eddies. Desolation seeps into the soul and stains it forever.

9-11 was a game-changer. From that day forward we began to live in a different world. There are many ways of falling. DeLillo captures the brief angels spilled from a hundred stories up, the performance artist dangling in his suit from hotel balconies and railroad trestles, the tower survivors who walked away but did not really survive, the witness in thrall to an altered landscape, half understood. Falling Man is a beautifully wrought book and very sad. I wish I’d chosen to read it on some other day when the ghosts of loss hovered farther back and the consolation of small, normal things was not so overshadowed.    

Falling Man: A Novel   Don DeLillo | Scribner  2007

Cuba and the Night — Pico Iyer

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I arrived in Miami, unwilling refugee from the North, just as waves of Cubans arrived in Miami, revolutionary casualties from an offshore island to the South. My best friend in Catholic school was the American daughter of an Italian-American mafia casino manager who fled the island once Batista fell. I shared an office in one of my first jobs in television with Carlos Prio’s daughter, a young woman raised to be a princess, who was privileged, delightful and sad.

On days when my father and I drifted in his small fishing boat in the Gulfstream, lines trailing behind us in the impossibly blue water, eyes squinting for a flash of silver that would signify dinner, we would talk about Cuba. Next week, next month, next year, we would cross the slender divide of the Florida Straits to fish for its legendary tarpon and marlin, as soon as the blockade lifted, when it was safe to go. I dreamed of Havana, exotic, seedy, tropical and haunted by Hemingway. My Spanish is still Miami street lingo and the Cuban accent has complicated my life more than once. We never made it to Havana. Castro soldiers on but my father is long gone, the Gulfstream polluted, that promise unfulfilled.

Pico Iyer has logged his time there, though. His novel, Cuba and the Night, was gathering dust on my shelves for years before I added it to the stack of books to read on this impossible book-a-day quest. Video Nights in Kathmandu was so much fun to saunter through that I thought this novel would be a jaunt across an island forbidden to me. When I realized it was more like Graham Greene does Horny in Havana, I set it aside. Now, with the dust blown off, it was ready to be tackled again.

Iyer captures a particular moment in the long, slow dissolution of Cuban society through a particular lens. The photographer who stars in this book is an itinerate shooter, a guy who keeps the world at a distance through the viewfinder of his camera. He’s the classic war photographer without a war, at loose ends, scraping the rough places for an adrenalin rush, wary of being pinned down. And he’s lonely. His life is running on empty and there are moments when that knowledge catches him like a big steel hook.

Richard is slick and practiced at working the local scenes to get the shots he needs, the booze that fuels his nights and the girls to share his bed. He has an eye for beauty shots amid poverty and irony amid political ideals that don’t pan out. He can spot a gorgeous hooker in drag a mile off. But he doesn’t see Lula coming and when he begins to wonder what she wants from him he’s already thrashing on the end of a line.

Iyer is a favorite writer of mine and his skills are in evidence in this cinematic glimpse of Cuba in decline, people finessing a bleak survival, rum, salsa and sequins standing in for dreams. Lula, or Lourdes, is unpredictable enough to keep you guessing, as she does Richard. But I could see the trajectory of this story from the opening sentence, a paragraph-long evocation of heat and night and sex for sale that paints the desperation of a country trapped in time and facing nothing much to relieve it. Not Hemingway with his loaded, macho haiku. But rich enough in detail to embroider loss with vivid threads of sights and sounds and the stink of the unwashed streets.

Normally, stories that hold no surprises don’t hold my attention. These characters were lifted from a life I knew—the photographers, the slick operators, the backstreet entrepreneurs, the desperate women, the hesitant voyeurs. But Iyer is an engaging writer and I don’t have the luxury of setting aside a book on a day when I’ve committed to finishing it, so I did. Could have written the ending without reading it. Sorry that a client called for a rush overnight rewrite when I still had 150 pages to go. Even sorrier that the hours of web sweatshop work to earn less than it takes to pay the bills were ahead of me. Rushed the ad copy, wrote the online crap, read until I saw double. Remembered the sun beating down as an open boat gently rocked on the ocean current and my father and I sat silent, each with our dreams of a Cuba we would never see.

Cuba and the Night: A Novel   Pico Iyer | First Vintage Contemporary Edition 1996

Bridget Jones’s Diary — Helen Fielding

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When you read something topical more than a decade past its prime, you miss the frisson of excitement that greeted its debut. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding drew raves when it was first published. I had no desire to read it then—probably about 15 years ago—because I thought it celebrated women as victims, trapped in some self-critical hell they could never climb out of. Actually, that was a reasonably perceptive evaluation.

I picked up the book at our fabulous St. Agnes library, thinking I could catch up on a dated cultural icon. Then I had to force myself to finish it. Yes, the musings of the overweight, alcoholic, dateless, human chimney with no self confidence who is known as Bridget Jones were amusing at first. Self-deprecating humor and unabashed self-bashing can be funny for about 15 minutes. But unwinding the tangled skein of a life that was going nowhere in a society that didn’t blink about that was just booorrrriinng. Bridget believes in every molecule of her liver-challenged, cholesterol-threatened and nicotine-laden being that she is a complete failure without the affirmation of some man. Really. Some—any—man seems to be it for her. She pursues creeps and cads obsessively, chronicling her failures along with daily calorie counts, cigs smoked, alcohol consumed and weight gained or lost.

Where is her brain? Where is a shred of self-awareness in all the self-criticism? Where is the acknowledgement that we create our own reality and that, as Lao Tzu proclaimed millennia ago, if you continue to do the same things, you will get the same results? Were there really that many women a decade and a half ago who believed they were nothing without a man? Funny became frustrating a dozen diary entries into this book.

In the end, is the fat girl Cinderella? Does the magic of Prince Charming save her? Has she learned her extraordinary self-destructive dumbness from her mother—another woman portrayed as an idiot in the book? Oy. I couldn’t muster appreciation for Bridget’s plight and her triumph just seemed like abject failure-to-thrive to me. Critics described this self-improvement queen as self-aware. Not. Didn’t happen. Mr. Darcy rides in on his white horse to save all the women who have eff’d up their lives big time and we wonder where Elizabeth Bennet wandered off to. Jane Austen could do Pride and Prejudice and deliver a satisfying human narrative with bright, imperfect characters who evolve. Helen Fielding just delivered Lumps and Losers in an endless loop of yo-yo dieting, hangovers and clever quips. It made me tired.  

Bridget Jones’s Diary: A Novel (Penguin Ink) (The Penguin Ink Series)  

Helen Fielding  | Penguin Books  2001

A Discovery of Witches — Deborah Harkness

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A Discovery of Witches was sitting in a display stand on the library desk when I dropped off some books so I snagged it. I love historical tales about witches and Deborah Harkness is a professor of history so I settled in for a good long read. I came close to giving up about a quarter of the way in because the witchcraft was pretty thin, the heartthrobs were pretty thick and the male lead turned out almost immediately to be a vampire. Twilight for grown-ups. No thanks. Muttering through the original had been bad enough.

But I persisted because I have to read one book a day and I’d already had this running start. And it got better—but only a little. There is plenty of history sprinkled throughout the text and any one of the threads would be fascinating to unravel but what dominates in this book is the love story. I am so not a fan of interspecies vampire love stories. Puh-leez, what is the romance about a classic abusive boyfriend set-up in which the besotted undead wouldn’t dream of harming his lady love—except for this teeny little problem he has with his appetites and his teeth?

OK, maybe not fair. Romance aficionados will find this a rich romp through a lot of material that never strays too far from the love story and the travails of the passionate but chaste couple and the somewhat heavy-handed argument for mixed species marriage. The heroine, Diana Bishop, is a scholar spending the summer in Oxford doing historical research at the Bodleian Library. She is also an uncommonly powerful witch who, due to the trauma of her parents’ untimely deaths when she was seven, refuses to use or even acknowledge her powers. When she stumbles across an ancient alchemical text that seems to be alive with mysterious spells, she triggers a witch hunt with herself at the center of it.

Diana runs a lot along the paths at Oxford and she goes rowing in the river solo at odd hours in foggy, deserted landscapes. Very tough cookie in the first half of the novel. Encounters sequential near-death experiences throughout most of the second half when she and the handsome, wealthy, accomplished, urbane, oenophile, ice-cold vampire, who stalks and then seduces her, take on the fearsome and murderous bigots of the magical world.

Matthew Clairmont, charming and cultivated uber-carnivore, has been a kind of very bright Forest Gump throughout most of Western European history and owns the tchotchkes from famous figures to prove it. His taste is exquisite and his fortune formidable. He is a distinguished Oxford fellow and a medical researcher of some renown who attends a weekly yoga class at his country estate that has all the groovy vibes of California, although the yogis are daemons and vampires.

All the creatures—there seem to be few actual humans in this story—have hypersensitive olfactory capabilities and spend a fair amount of time sniffing, describing various scents and explaining how that relays valuable information to them about enemies, threats and love interests. Many of the non-human cast want to get their hands on the mystery book, which has vanished as inexplicably as it appeared.

I read the whole novel. It wasn’t bad. I would rather have been reading a thriller with a good historical subplot that was less a hodge-podge of vampire-witchy heavy breathing salted with historical factoids. But, if you like romances that exist for their own sake and enjoy an encyclopedic knowledge of history as a bonus, go for it. If you’re a witch, you’d probably prefer Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader—funny, wacky, creepy, full of contemporary Salem witches and not a vampire in sight.

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel   Deborah Harkness | Viking 2011

The Magicians — Lev Grossman

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It seemed like a good idea to read The Magicians before tackling Lev Grossman’s new sequel, The Magician King. The first book was hailed as a grown-up fusion of The Narnia Chronicles and Harry Potter, with a magical college hidden in plain view in upstate New York on the Hudson and various portals and spellbinding journeys ferrying people to and from the real world. I think the critics left out the heavy influence of Sartre that trumped magic at every point in the book.

The Magicians was a good read for about the first two-thirds of the fantasy and a depressing descent into drunkenness, betrayal, mindless bravado and delusion for the last third. Severed limbs, exploded good and bad guys, miserable weather, horrible death and disfigurement seem to be what magic will produce when mixed with reality. The protagonist was a loser who sort of found himself in Magician U. but reverted to unattractive loser status as soon as he was cut loose. I hate a hero’s journey that’s just aimless bar-hopping, partner-swapping and “Hey, let’s do this because we’re all so fekking bored!” So I’m not too sure I will spend hours tomorrow slogging through the adventures in book two.

Quentin Coldwater is a really really bright high school student who can’t get the girl, reads his childhood fantasy series obsessively and wishes he could live in Lev Grossman’s version of Narnia, a place called Fillory. One day, he gets his wish. But first he wanders through a portal near the toxic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and winds up casting spells in Hogwarts-on-Hudson. The college is called Brakebills; it is extremely old and part of a post-secondary international consortium of magical prep colleges. Students are sorted into cliques, wear uniforms, memorize endless magical formulae and occasionally die.

Our hero meets a new girl-of-his-dreams, befriends an odd assortment of fellow magicians-in-training, does his semester abroad in Antarctica after an unusual migratory flight, and becomes a very competent and self-absorbed spell-caster. Upon graduation he embraces a pointless existence as a subsidized lush in Manhattan, wrecks his relationship with his admirable live-in magician girlfriend and sees rescue from the utter ennui of his life in the accidental chance to visit the land of his childhood fantasy books.

In Fillory, things go from extremely bad to a whole lot worse. It’s Narnia on steroids. No Aslan, lots of dismemberment, little charm. Lev Grossman is a fluent writer. He cooks up some plot surprises and he delivers solid characters who are believable, if not especially likable. By the end, that’s what got me counting pages. I just couldn’t empathize with a bunch of brilliant, over-privileged, highly-trained, immature fuck-ups. Quentin had me for a while but he lost me in a boozy Tribeca loft and I was more irritated than sad when the wrong people ended up on the wrong end of dark magic in the dungeon. I need my literary realism masquerading as fantasy to have some redemptive quality—life outside of books is grim enough.

Maybe I’ll read the sequel next or maybe I’ll return it on time to the library instead. New books have a shorter check-out time than books that have been around for a while and there is undoubtedly a long line of anxious readers waiting for this one. If I don’t read it now, The Magician King will be yesterday’s news by the time I get my hands on it again. If I do read it now, I’m in for many more hours of fantastical dysfunction. Scarlett O’Hara had the only possible line here, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”   

The Magicians: A Novel   Lev Grossman | Viking 2009