Friday, July 16, 2010

You Are What You Read (The Q Version: Part One)

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Now that Lisa has posted her list of favorite books, it’s my turn. Viva la dos equis!

Time to get girly. Except not really so much.

You see, I’m a sci-fi/fantasy writer, and a self-proclaimed geek. I like a lot of 'boy' stuff: I’m a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I love both R.R.s – Tolkien and Martin. I read the Thomas Covenant series when I was 12. I’ve even cracked open a comic book here and there.

Also, I’m happy to note that as thoughtful, intelligent female writers, neither Lisa nor I have included any sort of mooshy memoir from a high end domestic or intern or the like, nor any chicktastic books that are about people reading Jane Austen novels, and/or are themselves modernizations of Jane Austen novels. However, do you know who’s among the top of my list?

Jane Austen.

Yep. I’m a girl. But wait! Hear me out.

Jane Austen: In this order: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abby, Emma, Mansfield Park.

Ms. Austen is terribly misunderstood by humans of the broader, hairier persuasion. I think it’s because they’re forced to read her in high school or early college, and often they’re just not ready.

Kind of like when I watched A Clockwork Orange at age 18, and was traumatized for years. Only instead of scenes of graphic violence, these poor boys are subjected to elegant balls and class struggles between the upper class and the, ah … upper middle class. However, those 3 or 4 men I’ve convinced as adults to give Jane another try have been successfully converted, without the use of eyelid securing contraptions. Heck, I finally re-watched A Clockwork Orange when I was 30, and I liked it quite a bit.

Here’s the deal. Once you fall into her language, which doesn’t take long, Jane Austen is really, really, really funny. And not in a ‘oh how veddy veddy droll’ sort of way, in a sharp, cutting, whimsical, pointed sort of way. She does this thing, where she, as narrator, is a character herself; she manages to come across on the surface as the objective storyteller, but all the while she’s commenting on the selfish, ridiculous, and just plain stupid qualities of some of her characters, and society – without ever actually coming out and saying anything bad about them. It’s all in her tone, and it’s a brilliant balancing act. From Northanger Abby:

“She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Razor sharp. Of course, I also love her breathtaking use of language, her wonderful characters (WWEBD – What would Elizabeth Bennet do?), and oh yes, of course, the Romance. Has ever a book so utterly transformed the heroine’s and our opinions of the man in question so gradually and so perfectly as Pride and Prejudice? I guess you’ll have to read it to find out. Yes, you too, gentlemen.

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter

When I was taking a class at the Loft, the teacher (an acclaimed author) asked us to write down what we’d done that morning, and I included on my list: ‘Read a chapter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.’ I was soundly mocked. By the teacher. “Really? Harry Potter?” I looked around the room, and some of the students were pursing their lips and shaking their heads in condemnation, others were staring studiously at the floor. I’d bet you a pile of cold, hard knuts that the former group had never read the books, and the latter had, and loved them.

Because what’s not to love? They’re brilliant, and I don’t use that word lightly. (And to be clear, I’m talking about the books and not the movies.) “It’s a kid’s book; it’s for young adults, blah, blah, blah:” not really, and who cares? Not since I was a young adult myself have I been so completely transported into a series of books, into another world.

The series gets better as it goes along, both as Rowling becomes more accomplished in her writing, and as Harry’s understanding of his world expands – in other words, as he grows up. Adults disappoint. People die. Governments fail. And all of this hangs on a tale that Rowling crafted from start to finish, all seven books, before she ever started writing. The completeness of the story, and the little foreshadowing cookies she drops here and there for those who are paying attention (or rereading), are so satisfying, it’s hard to explain properly if you haven’t experienced it. Plus, the characters, and the world of Hogwarts are so likeable and well drawn, and, yes: magical, it’s hard to resist.

I’ve read all of the books multiple times, including twice out loud to friends (I do all the voices, don’t you know), and I’m sure there will be many more readings in my lifetime.

And by the way, my response to my teacher’s comment was, “Hell YEAH, Harry Potter!”

Jonathan Lethem: Motherless Brooklyn and Gun With Occasional Music

Mr. Lethem has other books worth reading, but the above two are my favorites. He is a clever, clever writer – and when you read interviews with him, he speaks almost as eloquently as he writes.

Motherless Brooklyn is not science fiction, although the majority of Lethem’s books fall loosely into that category. It’s a murder mystery, and the main character is low-level thug in the mob who grew up an orphan and also has Tourette Syndrome. It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not, it’s amazingly powerful, thoughtful, and funny. I would recommend this book to anyone I know; I can’t dream up a person who wouldn’t love it.

The first conversation I ever had with my husband was about Gun With Occasional Music, so it holds a special place in my literary litany. The quote at the front of the book is from Raymond Chandler:

“There was nothing to it. The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.”

Lethem uses this quote as a springboard for his futurist noir world, which contains, among other delights, an actual kangaroo in a dinner jacket. There are evolved animals, force-matured children (called baby-heads): objects come with their own soundtracks (thus the title of the book) and psychology has become a religion. Our main character is a private detective in a society where asking questions is a taboo. Tricky. But beneath all these fantastic incidentals (which Lethem manages to convey without ever coming across as Basil Exposition), there’s a great, gritty, classic noir mystery.

Wow. I just took up a lot of space, and I’m only three authors in. I do go on. Well, okay then. More next time!


Jon said...

Ah, the austere genre-disapproval of the "artists" in the Loft classes... always a hazard, sometimes they can be like the literary equivalent of the Temperance movement. Which class was it?

Great post. I still haven't read Gun, with occasional music. It's on my to-be-read shelf. I'll get to it... some day

Shawn Enderlin said...

Indeed. I hate it when people get all uppity about art, be that books, music, or whatever.

Not to be trite, but it takes all kinds. Kind of like alcohol. Sometimes you want to take an hour to sip on a shot a fine single malt scotch, and other times all you really want is an ice cold Corona.

With a lime, please.

Qlaudie said...

Well put, Shawn!
Jon, it was House. So it was funny and expected - he knows what he'll read and what he won't. It was the reaction of the class that cracked me up.
It's okay to want a Corona, people! And I'll even go a step further and say that Harry Potter is more like - A fine imported British Ale.

Mark Teats said...

Nice post!

I need to check out "Gun..." as well. I've read at least one short story by Letham and it cracked me up.

Currently reading the Potter books with my son and enjoying them.

Jane Austen? I'll have to take your word for it. When one of her books is near I start to break out in a cold sweat. Something to do with a college lit class...

Lisa said...

Here, here, Claudia
You've covered two of my favs here
now I'll have to check out Gun

Karenita ChaCha said...

Hell yeah HP indeed!! And like others here I'm now curious about Gun w/...I'll get to that once I complete The Tao of Equus. I've read it before but, wow, is it different to read now! Dare I say the first read was Maker's Mark and this time it's Blantons. ;-)