Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I reread this for a book club (I’ve joined a His Dark Materials book club, I’m very excited) and am going to use this long abandoned blog to collect my thoughts and try to approach things a bit more critically than I might otherwise. This is mostly a stream of consciousness written out at 11pm at night so it may also be quite incoherent. Suffice to say I will be spoiling the heck out of Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass if you’re American).

I was really keen to dive back into Lyra’s story,. I don’t think I’ve read this series in its entirety since I was a teenager reading it for the first time and as such I know a lot of the higher philosophical ideas explored in this series would have completely bypassed me. I remember loving the series, but being a bit confused by the ending which, if I’m remembering it correctly, gets pretty heavy into the whole Miltonian vibe. So I was (and am) super curious to see how I feel about His Dark Materials as an adult.

Let me say from the outset, I still love this series. Pullman’s writing is gorgeous, his world-building superb and his characters fun, fascinating and engaging. The way in which Lyra’s Oxford is established as Oxford-but-not is so impressive – you know from the first few pages that somehow this is not our world, but never does it feel like the author is wildly gesticulating and shouting LOOK! SEE? ITS A PARALLEL UNIVERSE! COOL, RIGHT? He just lays out some little clues and things for us to see and assumes we’ll pick it up eventually.

Mrs Coulter is still sinisterly enchanting and I continue to be scared of tiny evil monkeys in fiction (looking at you stupid capuchin in Pirates of the Caribbean). I love the way the ‘villains’ of the piece develop from the boogeyman evil of the Gobblers to the heart-wrenchingly visceral evil of the General Oblation Board. The horror of intercision is heart-grippingly palpable – I don’t know how Pullman makes us feel such outrage and terror at the concept of cutting away daemons, but it works for me.

Speaking of, Daemons remain one of the best concepts in modern day fantasy. I remember having in-depth discussions with friends over what ours would be (Hummingbird according to this quiz which – yeah I’m cool with that!) and it is certainly the part of the series that stuck with me the most.

It me!

So, having just finished the book, a few initial thoughts.

About 80% of this book is a rollicking YA fantasy – complete with witches, armoured bears, aeronauts, Gyptians and many of the trappings of your traditional fantasy novel. It’s very well written fantasy, and perhaps a bit darker and more complex than some, but nothing too out of the ordinary. And then, about 3 chapters from the end, it becomes a completely different book. I think this shift comes when Lyra finally talks to Lord Asriel and they discuss what Dust is. Asriel instructs Lyra to get the Bible down and read from Genesis and suddenly this fantasy adventure yarn is diving into Original Sin, metaphysics and the nature of religion. Further along, after Lyra’s great betrayal, Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel are reunited, and it reads like they are cameoing from a different, much more adult, book – something very Grown Up is happening, as Pullman describes the ways in which their daemons play ‘fiercely…the monkey raked her claws in the soft fur of her neck and she growled a deep rumble of pleasure.’ Like, this is told from Lyra’s perspective and it is just coy enough to get away with it, but this is clearly full on epic romance shit happening here, and then some. I think it is here in these last few chapters that the book pivots towards what the series is: complex, concerned with religion and theology and more adult than we were perhaps expecting. It’s not a bad pivot, but I found it quite jarring to have it happen so quickly and so close to the end. One minute we’re at an epic armoured polar bear fight, the next we’re discussing the Garden of Eden and the Nature of Sin. It’s a bit of a hard veer.

Another aspect I’m trying to parse for myself is the way in which women are treated. The book is, of course, focused on the experience of the young girl Lyra, who is a wonderful protagonist – quick, sly, smart, funny, passionate and loyal. But pulling out from this, I do feel that women are not necessarily treated that well in this book. The series, if I remember correctly, is concerned with the concept of original sin, which is focused on the figure of Eve as embodied by Lyra. And Pullman does seem to centre on this idea of women as the source of great evil – it is Mrs Coulter who instigates the horrors of Bolvangar, who tempts the children away into danger with her pretty feminine face and graces. It is constantly emphasised how elegant, charming and beautiful – all feminine traits – so as to contrast with the great evil she commits. However, Asriel, who commits as great an evil, never seems to get the same treatment – he is a figure of power and admiration for Lyra for most of the book, and is positioned as a rebel against the illusive and nefarious machinations of Mrs Coulter and the General Oblation Board. Thus whilst Mrs Coulter in some ways epitomises feminine traits, but in a way that is clearly codes as evil, Lord Asriel similarly fulfils this role for the male traits, but is not coded in the same negative way.

Lyra herself is surrounded by male figures her entire life. First the scholars of Jordan who attempt to raise her, as well as her best friend Roger, followed by John Faa, Farder Coram and the men of the Gyptians, and Iorek Byrnison and Lee Scoresby. The only women she encounters are Mrs Lonsdale at Jordan (there purely to wash and clothe Lyra), Ma Costa – a powerful figure to be sure, but one pressed firmly into the ‘warm maternal’ role and then promptly left behind in part 2 – and Mrs Coulter (see above). Initially presented as a bit of a tomboy (running wild around Oxford, unwilling to dress nicely, wash etc) Lyra’s flirtation with femininity is treated almost entirely as a negative – she almost loses herself in the femaleness her mother introduces her to in London (pretty clothes, nice things). She only emerges from this danger by embracing her ‘vulgar’ side again by running away from the soft, poisonous and female world of her mother, into the dark, dangerous and male world of her father.

The exception to this dearth of complex and positive female characters is perhaps Serafina Pekkala, who is presented as an ethereal figure of political and martial power (perhaps a mirror to Mrs Coulter?). Her talk with Lyra in the balloon is one of the highlights of the book and raises some of the key themes of the series (‘You cannot change what you are, only what you do” is a phrase that resonates and follows all the major characters throughout His Dark Materials). But still, she is introduced and defined in the context of a long ago lover of Farder Coram, so even the great witch queen cannot completely be divorced from the male presence in the book. The witches as a whole are pretty underdeveloped that almost veer into that good old trope where female empowerment = wearing very little + being inscrutable but very sexy. (Yes, I know they don’t feel the cold and that’s why they just wear scraps. But there are other ways of demonstrating otherworldly power than just sticking women in a bunch of sexy scraps and calling it magic).

So wild and free!
Also, although this movie sucked in almost every way, Eva Green was inspired casting
.

The lack of femaleness in the book bothered me a bit – for something that is meant to be interrogating the idea of original sin and the role of Eve and femininity in the church/theology, complex female voices are sadly lacking in this first book.

Another question to consider is who is this book written for. Apparently Phillip Pullman did not write this with a specific audience in mind, however is was pushed mostly towards the YA market. Looking at my copy, I first read this when I was 12. Is this too young? The book gets pretty violent towards the end (the polar bear fight yeesh) and, as mentioned above, there’s some not so subtle sexual analogies playing out between Mrs Coulter and Asriel. Further along, as I mentioned above, I remember getting quite confused as to some of the more religious aspects of these books – Pullman pulls quite heavily on Milton, who I have barely read as an adult, let alone as a teenager. I realise classifying books by intended audience is arbitrary at best, but I think it’s interesting to consider who Pullman is trying to reach with this book.

Some final thoughts/questions:

  • A friend described this series as ‘Narnia for atheists’. Fair?
  • The role of lying throughout the series – but particularly when Lyra is on Svalbard. Lying is Lyra’s superpower in a way – it gives her agency and influence. Is lying presented as a good thing, or bad thing or something more complex? How do Lyra’s lies develop over the book?
  • Poor Roger! Does Lyra seem to forget about him pretty quickly in her excitement over going to find Dust before Asriel?
  • Reading Northern Lights in the context of having recently read The Voyage of the Belle Sauvage – good/bad/indifferent? I personally adored the Belle Sauvage but it does feel like a completely different world to Northern Lights. So intrigued to see where that series goes…

I am super pumped to dive into this amazing series again – I’m so glad that Northern Lights lives up to my memories and I’m keen to dive into His Dark Materials with a more critical and (hopefully) informed eye.

If I decide to send this to book club peoples, I’m sorry I’m missing this first session – hopefully if nothing else this gives some ‘discussion questions’ if you need them…

Also the BBC/HBO series looks amazing and I can’t wait to watch it…

It’s LMM you guys! With a polar bear!

Feminism is a tricky topic to write about. For some unknowable reason, it is still controversial to declare oneself a feminist, particularly if you are a public figure. To do so is to open yourself up to attacks from men and women – you’re a man-hater, a misandrist. You are told that we don’t need feminism any more – the gender wars are over. What about racism, poverty, homophobia? Why don’t you focus on those problems? Why don’t you get back in the kitchen where you belong?

So at the outset, I should say that Tara Moss deserves a lot of praise for her long and very public stance as a feminist, and her willingness to speak up about issues that are important to her, not least putting them in her latest book The Fictional Woman. I just wish that I liked said book more than I did.

the-fictional-woman-197x300

It’s not that the book was bad. Moss is a good writer, and has a pretty engaging style. The early chapters, detailing her teen years and modelling career, and her experiences as a crime author, were interesting, funny and at times, heartbreaking. But after four chapters, Moss veers from biography into feminist theory and think-pieces and, unfortunately, I found the rest of the book pretty boring and pedestrian.

I call myself a feminist – I believe that women are in every way the equal of men, and should be treated, paid and spoken to as if they are. In The Fictional Woman Moss discusses, among other things, body image, gender representation, beauty myths, parenting, ageism and control of women’s bodies – all things I feel strongly about. The thing is, these are also all things that I’ve read hundreds, nay, thousands of words about elsewhere. There’s nothing new here. Moss articulates her points well, she presents evidence and statistics when necessary, but she doesn’t say anything new, and she doesn’t present things in a particularly new or engaging way. There’s not a lot to differentiate between chapters 5-18 of The Fictional Woman and a column on Daily Life, or Jezebel, or The Mary Sue, or a opinion piece in The Guardian .or The Conversation. I found it hard to finish this book because I’ve read it all before.

It must be said, I think at least part of my reaction is part of a wider exhaustion that we are still talking about this stuff. It’s dispiriting and tiring to read yet another example of how women are harassed on the street, to hear about near misses on dark streets, to have the statistics of pay gaps, female representation and voice presented once again. I seriously don’t understand how any of this is still a thing.

Actually, I do understand, I just think it’s rubbish.

Obviously the points Moss makes are important, and need to be talked about. But I don’t think she brings anything much to dicussion, other than to reinforce that yes, these things are bad, lets do something about them.

It’s interesting to compare The Fictional Woman with another ‘feminist’ book I read recently, Roxane Gay‘s Bad Feminist. Like Tara Moss, Roxane Gay writes about women, gender, body image, eating disorders, gender in pop culture (she also writes about Scrabble, in a screamingly funny essay that had me snorting on the train as I read it). But whereas I had to force myself to finish The Fictional Woman, I couldn’t put Bad Feminist down. I read it compulsively, and when Gay came to Melbourne earlier this year I booked myself a ticket to see her, got my book signed and squeed like a fangirl when she favourited my tweet.

She also signed my book! <3

She signed my book! ❤

So what was different? Obviously Gay is writing from a very different perspective than Moss. Her writing is not just informed by her gender, but by her Haitian heritage and race is a clear factor in all her writing. She is also an academic, and extremely well-read and steeped in feminist theory. Her writing is very personal – she uses her own experiences and passions to highlight the issues she talks about. There were times, reading Bad Feminist, where i felt very uncomfortable, deeply angry or physically sick about the things Gay was writing about. I questioned my own values, and the way I viewed particular books, or films, or people. For me, this is the reaction I should be having to feminist writing. It should upset me, or make me angry. I shouldn’t be bored reading about feminism. This is too important to be boring.

The best bits, in my view, of The Fictional Woman, were where Moss inserted herself back into the narrative. It would have been good if, alongside the facts, figures and statistics, we could have seen more of her experiences, her reactions to the world she presents to us. She’s obviously a fascinating woman, who leads an exciting, interesting life – it would have been good to see more of this. She says at various points that she is angry or upset, but you never really feel it. The ‘fictional woman’ Moss presents remains just that – a concept on a page, not a real breathing, flesh and blood figure. And I think it’s a shame, and a missed opportunity.

This post was bought to you by Liz Lemon... (all hail Tina Fey)

This post was bought to you by Liz Lemon… (all hail Tina Fey)

Greetings, much neglected and abandoned blog. I have indeed been a recalcitrant blogger – about 2 and a half years since I posted anything! I know I said posts would be periodic, but really there are limits. My apologies…

I’m inspired to come back partly because I’ve just been rereading Tam Lin (I’ve just spent 5 days at a Folk Festival and it seemed appropriate) and it reminded me how much fun I had writing this blog. Partly also because I need a kick up the posterior to get myself reading again and this seems like a good way to motivate myself.

But I’ve also returned because I’ve been revisiting one of my first true literary loves, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and I’ve been thinking about what it is about these books that makes me love them so much.

Terry Pratchett is one of those authors I can go back to, time and again, without ever growing sick of. He is my author for all seasons – when I’m depressed, his books make me laugh. When I’m in a good mood, he makes me feel even better. If I want a brainless comfort read, I can sink back in the familiarity of a often-read favourite, but if I want, I can always find some small literary or historical joke that will stimulate my brain and make me want to go off and read some more.

When I read, about a month ago, that Terry Pratchett had died, I felt bereft. I was sitting in bed, and my Facebook feed was suddenly full of sadness and tributes from friends and people I follow for the man in the balck hat. When I read his final tweets on Twitter I had a small teary – I felt like some undefinable part of my childhood/teenage years had ended.

I read Discworld voraciously as a teenager. I worked through all the books that my brother had, and then the sizeable collection held in our school library. I borrowed them from friends (who were all as obsessed as I was) and bought them when I had money. I could (and often did) read several a day when I could get away with it. I loved their humour which encompassed everything from bad puns to pop culture references (my favourite was always Buddy’s name in Soul Music) to jokes that riffed off Shakespeare, opera and Leonardo da Vinci. As I got older, more and more of the jokes made themselves known to me, and I could reread books with a whole new perspective.

I loved the footnotes, and the quick wit they displayed. And I loved his characters. Magrat, the hopelessly romantic witch who was nonetheless surprising practical when required. Granny Weatherwax and her headology – a character who should be hugely unlikeable, but manages to stomp over all your possible prejudices in her large sensible boots. Nanny Ogg and her alarming love of hedgehogs. Death, who rode a horse named Binky and loved cats, and was constantly confused and intrigued by humanity. The UU Librarian – dauntless explorer and defender of (and from) the L-Space. The City Watch (most probably my favourite ‘mini-series’ of Discworld) – I spent hours with fat Sgt Colon, Nobby Nobbs (humanity confirmed by certificate), simple (but not stupid) Carrot, haunted Angua, Cheery (or Cheri?) Littlebottom and her search for feminine expression in dwarf society and most of all Sam Vines – my favourite Pratchett character. A person who is so pessimistic about humanity in general (and the people Ankh Morpork in particular – this is, however, understandable), yet who goes to extreme lengths to serve and protect it.

He's a very sweet person, really.

He’s a very sweet person, really.

I saw Terry Pratchett speak about 10 years ago when I was 18. My friend Jo and i came down to Melbourne for our college interviews and then navigated our way through Melbourne University to Union Hall where he spoke for an hour. He was funny and intelligent, and I will always regret not asking him a question (I was too terrified). Afterwards we joined the huge queue for book signing and he signed my brand new copy of Going Postal with ‘Love and Socks, Terry Pratchett’ (a month later I took the same copy on schoolies and spilt fish sauce all over it – but that’s another, much smellier, story). He struck me as a man who is passionately interested in everything and who was angry that he will never be able to ferret out all the mysteries of the world. (Neil Gaiman kind of agreed with me there…) The fact that quite soon after this he was diagnosed with what he termed his ’embuggerance’ makes this all the more tragic. How deeply unfair that a man so enamoured with learning and discovery be denied the tool that allowed him to pursue it with the reckless abandon that he did. Despite this however, he continued to write and learn and share this with his passionate and rowdy fans. What a man.

pratchett

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this post – I’m sure no-one will ever read it… I suppose I want to just send this out to the ether and say Thank You Sir Terry. Thanks for making me laugh and making me think. Thanks for giving me a world I could return to whenever I needed to, and friends I could relate to – even through they lived with dragons, magic and such unspeakable things as CMOT Dibbler’s sausage-inna-bun. Thanks for being there through dark times and light times and all the times in between. The world is a poorer place without you in it, but thank you for leaving a small part of yourself with us forever.

Ook

Ook

Bits and bobs.

So… it’s been a while between posts.

I know I said that posts would be periodic, but even I admit that this is ridiculous. Life, that annoying thing that happens, seemed to keep getting in the way with work, choir gigs and various other sundry bits and pieces. All of which is no excuse for my slackness, but it will have to do…

All, except for regular blog posts...

All, except for regular blog posts…

On the upside, just because I haven’t been posting, doesn’t mean I haven’t be reading. So, to get y’all up to date, here’s a very quick meander through some of my last few months reading..

  • Angelmaker (Nicholas Harkaway) – I believe this was promised as the next post. I read Harkaway’s first book The Gone Away World last year and loved it and so was very much looking forward to this one. It is, much like that first book, very engaging, full of twisty turns and long tangents and digressions. All of which I enjoyed very much (although I could see how people wouldn’t like it). Io9 has a nice long review if you want to find out more.
  • The Whore’s Asylum (Katy Darby) – this was a book for my book club, which was essentially picked because we couldn’t decide on anything else and it looked interesting. Which was a mistake – the book is essentially a misguided attempt at a 19th century Gothic novel, but fails miserably, with irritating characters, stilted language and a massively underwhelming ending. That will teach us not to pick a book based of its (admittedly pretty) cover…
  • The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller) – the winner of the Orange Prize for 2012, this book retells the Achilles/Troy myth from the perspective of Patroclus. I hugely enjoyed this book, which is a believable retelling of the famous myth centring on the deeply romantic relationship between the two Greek heroes, which inspired me to pick up the Illiad again (at least until I got to the catalogue of ships and remembered why I stopped reading to begin with…)

So good it almost made me forget this...

So good it almost made me forget this…

  • Runaways vols 1-4. Yes, I read comics. Runaways is a Marvel series that I’ve been meaning to read for a while – it’s about a group of teenagers who discover their parents are part of a secret evil brotherhood. Overall, I’m really enjoying it, although I think the series works a lot better when it focuses on the Runaways themselves and doesn’t try to shoehorn in existing Marvel characters.

There’s been some other books as well (mostly things I’ve already 10 million times before and consider comfort reading) but that’s the highlights!

So, if anyone still reads this, I hope you’ll forgive my absence and accept this picture as compensation

I'm feeling sheepish...

I’m feeling sheepish…

 

 

Next up – State of Wonder (better than the title would suggest…)

The Hunger Games Trilogy

If you’ve read the previous posts of this blog (from it’s first iteration as a University reading diary) you’ll know that I like me some good Young Adult fiction. Which is why I was somewhat excited to start onto the giant time-suck that was Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

I have to say, I saw the movie before I read the book. Obviously I’d heard about the series (and how it seemed to be the anti-Twilight, so it was already earning bonus points with me), but hadn’t felt moved to read them. But the trailer looked good, and my brother (of all people) wanted to see it, so off we went for 2 hours of teenagers killing each other in violent and inventive ways. I was pleasantly surprised by the movie and thus, when my friend Claire (thanks again Claire!) gave me all 3 books for my birthday, eagerly started into the world of Panen, home to Katniss, Peeta, Gale and the eponymous Hunger Games.

Had these books come out when I was, say, 14 (ie. roughly the age they are aimed at) I would have ADORED them. They are absolutely the type of thing I loved as a teenager. As a 20-something, I don’t quite have the passion for them that I might have, but that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy them immensely. They’re certainly not the best written things I’ve ever read, but then, they move at such a break-neck pace that it doesn’t matter. This is absolutely one of those series that you just want to keep reading – I read almost the entirity of Mockingjay (book 3) in one night. So, any of you thinking to start this, be warned!

One of the best responses I’ve seen about these books is that they aren’t just about Katniss and her relationship dramas (unlike another teen-aimed trilogy we could mention). Whilst the Katniss/Gale/Peeta love triangle is obviously a large part of the book, take it away and you still have a tale that delves into the media’s portrayal of violence, the effects of war, the seeds of revolution, the role of propaganda, PTSD and mental anguish and a whole lot of teenagers killing each other.

Because oh boy is this series bloody! I know there was a lot of discussion comparting The Hunger Games to the Japanese movie Battle Royale (a truly insane and very violent movie. Worth watching though if you like crazy violent Japanese movies) and whilst the HG doesn’t quite live up to that bloodbath, it’s gets pretty damn close for a book supposedly aimed at teenagers. Characters are shot through the throat, set on fire, stung to death by crazy mutated wasps, mutilated (for hours) by genetically warped dog-creatures and more. And that’s only in the first book! Just wait until you get to the horrors of the end of book 3…

Not to mention the crazy clothes…

But in all seriousness, I really liked that The Hunger Games dealt with some serious issues and didn’t flinch away from showing that war has traumatic effects. It seems that often there’s a lot of ‘war is awesome‘ going on in media today, particularly on film (much as I loved the Avengers, it made fighting seem pretty damn fun. Particularly if you have a Hulk you can tell to smash things.) But Suzanne Collins, for all her glamorising of the tributes (there is endless obsession over Katniss’ clothes, hair, nails and skin. Good lord it goes on forever…) does not hold back from showing the effects, both immediate and ongoing, of violence and destruction.

So three cheers for a YA book that’s not all about swooning over some unbelievably attractive guy, whislt some other things happen in the background. Go The Hunger Games for daring to be a book that’s about something!

Also. This book is OBSESSED with food. Seriously – I mean, I know it’s called The Hunger Games and all, but the characters, particularly Katniss, go practically orgasmic over food. Lamb stew is described in loving detail, pages are devoted to describing the various feasts Katniss and Peeta attend. My recommendation? Read with a tasty snack to hand, because you will be hungry

And now, because why not, the Hunger Games as performed by Beanie Babies…

Next up: some steampunky quirkiness with Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker.

O I forbid you, maidens a’,

That wear gowd on your hair,

To come or gae by Carterhaugh, 

For young Tam Lin is there.

An illustration from JRR Tolkien’s novella ‘Smith of Wooten Major’. I don’t think these elves are here to fix our boots…

I’ve always loved Fairy Stories, those tales of the fantastic that take us out of the humdrum world of reality and into what JRR Tolkien called ‘the Perilous Realm’ of Faerie. From childhood favourites such as the Faraway Tree series (which presents a charming, albeit sanitised fairyland) to Tolkien’s own Middlearth, discovered first in the Hobbit at age 10, and then in the Lord of the Rings at age 13 (and onwards!), to the realm of the bickering Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, books and tales about the lands of fairies, elves and other fantastic creatures have heavily populated my reading. This is not to mention the more traditional fairy tales, those of the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, whose words I devoured out of two extremely ancient volumes stolen from my father (who had bought them over from England, stolen, I found out, from his brother. Crime perpetuates crime…)

It’s all kisses and romance until the cannibalism starts…

I would not be the first to point out that traditional Fairy Tales have got somewhat of a bad rap over the last couple of centuries. As most of us know, Fairy Tales started out as grusome and pretty nasty stories about fathers attempting to marry their own daughters, Red Riding Hood being eaten by the wolf as a punishment for talking to strangers (or, alternatively, eating her granny), or a sequel to Sleeping Beauty where the mother of the Prince attempts to cannabalise Sleeping Beauty and her children. However, somewhere along the line, they became tales of princesses, talking animals and Happily-Ever-Afters, firmly relegated to world of children’s storybooks and bedtime stories. Others, most notably Tolkien himself, have discussed this change and the reasons for it in great detail, so I won’t bother here. However, if you haven’t, you should read Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Tales’. It’s great reading, and still considered one of the key bits of literature in the study of fairy tales.

So, this was all basically a very long lead-into our next book: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. This was published as part of the Fairy Tale series, which published updated (although not necessarily modernised) versions of classic fairy tales such as Jack the Giant Killer, Snow White and Rose Red and The Nightingale aimed at adults. Tam Lin is not strictly a fairy tale; rather, it is a Scottish Ballad. It tells the tale of the fair Janet, who must fight the fearsome Faerie Queen to save Tam Lin, her love and the father of her child. The ballad has been retold and adapted by everyone from the Fairport Convention, to Neil Gaiman, to Japanese video games (go figure…) In her version Dean transplants the action from the Scottish Borders in the 16th century to a liberal arts college in Minnesota in the 1970s. The heroine here is Janet, a freshman, the battles based around the sinister Classics department, and Tam Lin himself – well, he could be any number of characters; the charming, but evasive Nick, the bearded piper Robin, the angry and melancholy Thomas…. Throw in a couple of angry science majors (its the Arts students who are cool here! mwahahaha), an odd production of the Revengers Tragedy and a ghost who throws classics texts out of windows, and you’ve got a rollicking good tale!

There were two things I really liked about this book. Firstly, most of the characters are English literature or Classics majors, and thus spend much of the book wandering around reciting Shakespeare, Homer, Keats and Elliot. It’s lots of fun – although I don’t remember being that knowledgable about literature (to the point where one character can recite the entirity of Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci from memory) when I was at uni. Mostly I recall talking about Buffy and Terry Prachett, The Amazing Race or  arguing that an Arts degree was going to land me a job. (Which it did. Kind of. So HA all you guys who doubted me.) But still – I love all the references, and the author’s obvious love of the heritage of literature that has some before her. Tam Lin was actually lent to me for this reason – the lender thought I would appreciate all the literary nerdiness that goes on in the book!

The other thing I enjoyed was the fact that the fairy-tale elements are kept firmly in the background for most of the book. Certainly, you are aware from the outset that something unsettling is going on, but things are kept to the outskirts of the narrative for the most part. For me, this actually makes the faerie aspects of the book more effective. Faerie has always been, to some extent, about the Other – those on the fringes of reality (the boundaries between here and fairy-land perhaps?) By keeping these elements there in her own fairy-story, Dean saves the book from become silly and, when we finally do cross into the land of the Fey, makes the event more unsettling. Plus, it made my reading somewhat compulsive – when would the fairy tale stuff actually happen?

Tam Lin, whilst not quite harking back to the gruesomeness of some fairy tales, evokes the idea that Faerie is not the cutesy world portrayed in Victorian fairy stories and Disney movies. It is the faery of old – where the fairies are tall and stern and beautiful, and, for the most part, to be feared by mortals. This is Tolkien’s ‘Perilous Realm’ – for me, a far more interesting place.

And lastly, because there’s not enough Sandy Denny in the world…

Next up – returning to young adult fiction with The Hunger Games

So, my brother has this tradition, every Christmas and birthday, of giving my parents and I books he’s pretty sure we’re going to hate. He calls this ‘educating us’. I call it something else…

As an example, previous educational gift have included Platform  by Michel Houellebecq, a book that talked about sex tourism as casually as it did about getting a coffee. It was very odd (and somewhat embarrassing to read on the tram).

Chirstmas 2011’s ‘educational’ book was Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller… presented with the comment ‘You might actually like this one’. And I have to say, it is a definite improvement on some of its predecessors.

The book begins with a rather wonderful description of a expedition into a bookshop to buy Italo Calvino’s new book If on a winter’s night a traveller, and the process of settling down on the couch to read it. It’s a great exploration of readership, and the joys inherant in bookshops and the act of reading itself. The second chapter is the first chapter of the book If on a winter’s night a traveller, whichs seems to be a story of the thriller/crime bent. The chapter is also a narration of the Reader (as the second-person protagonist is called) reading the chapter, their reactions and so forth. Hmmm, I think, this could be interesting… I’m intigued. The book-within-the-book If on a winters night a traveller certainly seems intriguing; maybe this will be the ‘Nick book’ that I like!

And then…

The story If on a winters night a traveller… suddenly halts. There has been a printing error. The Reader goes to find a new copy (the third chapter) but this turns out to be a completely different book (the fouth chapter). He embarks on a search for the next chapter of this book. And so on and so forth… You get the picture.

Ok. So that was a lot of time spent on explaining what actually happens in the book, which, generally, I’m trying to avoid (my theory is, if you really want to know what happens, I suggest you go read the book. Or look up the Wikipedia page. Whatever.) But in this case I feel its necessary in order to elaborate on my reaction to this book.

This thing I noticed when I mentioned to other people I was reading Calvino, and getting mildly frustrated with it, was one of horror. ‘You don’t like it???’ I was asked with wide-eyed shock. Obviously this a book a lot of people love. And, as I would explain, no, I actually did like it. I just also found it immensely frustrating. It’s a seductive book, and its a testement to Calvino that the isolated odd chapters are so engaging. But that was my problem – I wanted him to finish one of the damn things! Calvino manages, in each new ‘book’, to make me care about this new set of characters and events. And then he abandons the story (often on a cliffhanger). Cue frustrated ranting from me.

I realise that the point of this book is not to provide a straight-forward narrative with a beginning, middle and end. If on a winter’s night… is a study of beginnings, of the nature and structure of narrative, and most of all, of readership. As the blurb on the back of my copy reads (somewhat naffly) ‘the hero of the book is you, the reader!’ It is about how we interact and participate with books and stories, and how, to an extent, we can be the creators of a story, as much as the author (although I’m sure some authors would disagree!)

But, maybe I’m just a linear kind of gal, but after a while, I got a little sick of it. And, as the main story (the Reader’s search for one complete book) become increasingly ludicrous (elusive Irish writers, South American dictatorships, international forgery conspiracies and what is surely the world’s worst publishing house) I got a little bogged down. As you may have been able to tell by the gap between the last entry and this, I took a while to finish this book. I found myself avoiding it, not willing to invest in yet another story that will end in disappointment and frustration. So whilst I flew through the first 100 pages in a week, it took me about 3 weeks to get through the last 100 – and most of that was in one sitting. When I messaged my brother about my frustrations, he sent back a simple reply ‘It’s postmodern’. Well, exactly.

That being said, I really did enjoy parts of If on a winter’s night a traveller…very much indeed. Maybe I could go and write my own version of ‘Outside the town of Malbork’, After all, if I’m the ‘hero’ of the book, shouldn’t I be able create my own version?

Or create my own artwork…

Next up – revisiting the fairy tale with Tam Lin.