Lev Grossman has been in the literary news lately for his defense of the fantasy genre as relevant and important for adult readers. Not content to merely offer up his opinion on the matter, Grossman has been making a strong case for his argument with two incredibly strong novels, The Magicians (see my glowing review) and its follow-up The Magician King. Billed by some as “Harry Potter meets Narnia for grown-ups”, this reductionist description misses much of the subtlety and artistry that make this two book series (so far) so amazing. The Magician King is an excellent novel that works on many levels. It’s an homage to classic fantasy novels, it’s top shelf social commentary, and, most imporantly, it’s a ripping good story.
The Magician King begins shortly after when The Magicians left off. (Quit reading now to avoid potential spoilers of how the first book ends.) Quentin and three other young magicians now reign as the kings/queens of the magical land of Fillory. It quickly becomes apparent to Quentin that being the king of a magical world is not necessarily a thrill a minute. He notes than even when he…
…tried to get serious about something, there turned out not to be much to be serious about. It was all ritual pop and cirumstance. Even money was just for show…The others had all but given up on trying to make themselves useful, but Quentin couldn’t let it go. Maybe that was what was nagging at him, as he stood on the edge of that meadow in the woods. There must be something real somewhere out there, but he could never quite seem to get his hands on it.
A routine tax matter comes up for the kingdon, and Qurntic turns it into an epic quest – just to have something to do. Along the way, the quest becomes very real, and the fate of Fillory hangs in the balance.
The narrative alternates between Quentin’s quest and the backstory of one of the queens, Julia. In the first book Quentin was chosen to attend Brakebills an elite “college of magical pedagogy.” Julia was left behind but became a magician anyway through incredible self-sacrifice and courage. A hint of Julia’s desperateness to become a magician and the ruthless path she undertook to achieve her goal are hinted at in this quote from the novel. The emotional cost of Julia’s journey becomes apparent as the novel progresses.
In my review of the first book I suggested that a thematic undercurrent of the novel was Grossman’sexploration of the ”…the transition from adolescence through college and into the job market [adulthood], especially among “elite” students.” With Julia’s story, I felt that Grossman was continuing the thematic thread (as I saw it) while developing it further by adding the element of social class to the story.
I feel it’s important to note that both novels are just plain fun to read. Much of the fun in the novels comes from picking up on the allusions to other novels. The characters in these novels are also aware of the fantasy canon and pop culture and often reference it to describe the situations that they are in. The novels, despite their magical subject, are also rooted in the reality of this world and time. I laughed out loud when a character mentioned that she used magic to jailbreak her iPhone. Grossman also gets occasional digs into the literature-must-be-realism crowd with barbs like this:
It had the feel of a scene from a novel written by an earnest realist who was more concerned with presenting an amalgamation of naturalistic details that fit together plausibly than with telling a story that wouldn’t bore the fuck out of the reader.
You may be asking yourself, “Do I need to read The Magicians first? Or can I just dive right into The Magician King?” Yes. You need to read The Magicians first. You’ll be able to understand the words on the page of The Magician King without reading Magicians first, but you’ll be doing yourself a large disservice. With these novels, it is all about the journey.
Grossman confirmed that there will be a third novel in this series. If it were available for pre-order today, I’d hand over my money now.
Atlanta reader bonus: Lev Grossman is reading tonight, August 29, at the Barnes and Noble in Buckhead. 7PM. I’m there.
Has your friend from high school been living under a rock?
Speaking of…this comic comes up with a foolproof plan for correcting texts and tweets that look like that.
Speaking of marketing genius, Ray Bradbury had a limited run of Fahrenheit 451 printed with asbestos covers - so they couldn’t be burned! That’s a really bad idea. But also totally awesome.
Since they are doing all the reading, it stands to reason that women own the majority of e-readers
An interesting look at how Elliott Bay Book Co’s inventory changed when it moved into a new neighborhood
That bookstore that Hugh Grant owned in the movie Notting Hill is a real place and is in danger of closing
Oh, good. Your friend from high school seems to be getting up to speed.
When I become President, I’ll have to retire this blog. I’ve been following the commentary on President Obama’s vacation reading, and I’m not sure that my habits would measure up either.
First, I read a lot of fiction. Of course, everyone knows that serious people do not read fiction.
…five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.
Second, every year I make a reading resolution to read more books by women. I usually come up short and repeat the vow. This year is probably my best year yet, and my books still aren’t split 50/50. I’m probably also short on a representative number of books by minorities and/or works in translation. I try not to beat myself up about it and look for ways to improve instead. This approach doesn’t work when you’re President. Not reading more books by women is prejudice:
Now the fact that the president of the United States apparently doesn’t read women writers is not the greatest crisis facing the arts, much less the nation — but it’s upsetting nevertheless. As I suspect Obama would agree, matters of prejudice are never entirely minor, even when their manifestations may seem relatively benign.
OK. I’m now President and I’m going on vacation. None of that purchasing books at the local indie bookstore that appeal to me on the spot or I heard something good about on NPR or have pretty covers, like I do. I’d be best served to have an elite commission make sure that they are properly distributed among author sex, nationality, color, religion, and font selection. And go heavy on the lady writer non-fiction, please.
No. If I were President, I think that I would ultimately do what the guy before Mr. Obama did and lie my ass off. Apparently, people will believe you.
George W. Bush boasted an almost exclusive focus on works of history and biography, devoting the summer of 2006 (the White House announced) to reading life stories of Lincoln, Mao, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, Babe Ruth, and Roberto Clemente—as well as heady accounts on the position of Muslim women and major diseases (polio and influenza) that exerted a profound impact on the United States. His only chosen work of fiction, the existentialist Camus classic The Stranger, might have been part of an effort to repair tattered relations with France, or to make up for assignments he blithely ignored during prep school at Andover.
Sure. Bush may have been wanting to patch up relations with France. Reading Camus would be a sound way to do that. Nice theory. Or you could just watch the tape on how the Camus came to pass:
I ranted about this reading competition a while back. My opinion on the matter stands.
I have to admit, I am absolutely dumbfounded at how little Hemingway I’ve read. I read The Sun Also Rises a couple years ago (a copy I had purchased on my honeymoon in 1996 but had never bothered to read until recently) and felt like I got it; I figured out what all the fuss was about and why Hemingway was so highly-regarded. Why I didn’t immediately line up the rest of his works in the queue is a mystery to me. Hemingway’s ability to evoke imagery in the reader’s mind is unparalleled in my experience.
After some fits and starts and failures, beginning some books that didn’t resonate with me at all, I decided to go back to Hemingway, whose The Old Man and the Sea was perfect for my short attention span. Not to mention that it won the Pulitzer in 1952 and was a driving force behind Hemingway’s receipt of the Nobel Prize.
The story tracks our hero, Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who has gone 84 days without catching anything. He concocts a plan to go farther out to sea to try to catch the big one; when he actually catches a huge marlin, it drags his little boat even farther out to sea over the course of two days. Hemingway tells the story of the epic battle between the two with such precision and with such detail to the specific tools Santiago uses and actions he takes that you can’t help but believe Hemingway himself was a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico for thirty years.
This story is absolutely spellbinding, even if I wasn’t familiar with some of the nautical and angling terminology. It was simply breathtaking to follow Santiago as his mental and physical limits are stretched beyond anything I’ll ever experience. And the metaphor reflected by what happens to Santiago and the marlin is so moving and heartbreaking that I see it in every sad tale I’ve heard since, whether real or fictional.
You can bet your skiff that I’ll be lining up some more Hemingway soon. I’ve decided that he will be the fallback whenever I hit a dry spell, because I know I can count on him.
The Decemberists (featuring the jangly 12-string guest guitar goodness of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck) have a new video that recreates a scene from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s the trifecta of awesome.
Of course, Colin Meloy, singer of The Decemberists, will be kicking off the Decatur Book Festival by providing the keynote address along with his wife Carson Ellis. They will be discussing their first book, Wildwood, which Colin wrote and Carson illustrates. I’m there.
I recently noticed that three novels I’ve read this year contained a similar plot element. Since three occurrences = a trend, I decided to try my hand at a New York Times-style trend piece. Said plot element was actually essential to all three novels, and I am a fan of each of them.
The Absolutely Untrue Story of Fake Indians
Like many young American novelists, Karen Russell explores non-Indians pretending to be Native Americans in her latest novel. Swamplandia tells the story of the Bigtree Family who run an alligator wrestling tourist attraction on a small island off the coast of Florida. The father of the family, known as Chief, is the instigator of the suddenly trendy subterfuge:
Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were “our own Indians.”
Karen Russell – A leader of the fake Indian literary movement
Mat Johnson takes a slightly different approach to the newly minted pretend-Indian genre that is sweeping the bestseller lists. Johnson’s Pym includes a meeting of The Native American Ancestry Collective of Gary (Indiana), a group of African-Americans who believe that their heritage is Native American:
Once the community center had been entered it was easy to locate the dozen or so NAACG members. This was not because they looked like Native Americans; to my eyes, they looked like any gathering of black American folks, some tan and most brown. What distinguished the group was their attire. The first man I saw in the room had a full Native American headdresss, a Stegosaurus spine of white feathers that reached all the way down to his moccasins.
Watch out vampires and zombies! Will people masquerading as Native Americans supplant occult romance as the new literary “it” genre. It may well be, if author Chris Gavaler has anything to say about it. Gavaler’s novel School for Tricksters begins at the famed Carlisle Indian School that included Jim Thorpe among its graduates. The novel doubles-down on Native American deception by alternating between the stories of a Black male student and a white female student (who was married to Thorpe) who pretend to be Indians in order to get a college education courtesy of the government.
Sociologists and other observers are uncertain where the beginnings of the faux Indian book craze began. Following the runaway success of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, winner of the National Book Award in 2007, perhaps it was inevitable that the floodgates were opened on a seemingly endless river of novels about identity and Native Americans. The new genre is so red hot that it’s appeal has even begun to spread beyond the shelves of your favorite indie bookseller.
HBO tapped into the First Nations fakery craze with their own pretend Indian, Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, on their hit show Treme. Lambreaux is “chief” of a group of Mardi Gras Indians that are steeped in New Orleans tradition but, ultimately, not real Indians.
With so many fake Indian stories swirling around, it seems only a matter of time until Hollywood brings a pretend Indian picture to your local cineplex.
“The Pandora for Books” – Booklamp - is now up and running. Check it out. The idea: type in an author or book you love and it will identify others that you may like. The first three authors I typed in (Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Eleanor Henderson) were not found. It finally returned results for Michael Chabon, but only for books like his Gentlemen on the Road. The service seems beta at best at the moment. Your mileage may vary.
John Hodgman talks about how bookstores can survive on The Daily Show:
Lev Grossman’s 10 “must read” fantasy novels
Literature inspired sneakers: be a rebel and sport your Slaughter-House Five kicks in homeroom
After seeing that a survey of NY Times book critics had named Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, as the best work of fiction of the past 100 years, and knowing that I had heard Nabokov mentioned in song and that a band I like called Clare Quilty was named after a character in the book, how could I resist? And that sort of sums up our narrator, Humbert Humbert, who is obsessed with young girls (whom he refers to as “nymphets”).
Nabokov is a good writer – that many critics can’t be wrong. However, the most striking thing about this novel is not Nabokov’s writing ability, but rather that the book was first published in 1955 in France and then in 1958 in the U.S. The central point of the story is Humbert Humbert’s fixation on young girls, and eventually on one in particular, Dolores Haze (whom he nicknames “Lolita”). While that concept may not seem particularly shocking today, I suspect it was as controversial as just about anything you could come up with during that era. What a brave, gutsy venture by Nabokov.
Without giving the details of the story away (as if there’s anyone other than me who hadn’t read this before), suffice it to say that the things our narrator does to get close to Lolita are astounding. And even more astounding is that as he rejiggers his entire life to be near her, the reader feels perversely sympathetic to him — he is our protagonist. Yet stepping back, objectively, he is a disgusting human being who should be entitled to no feelings from us other than disgust, hatred, and anger. And I imagine that is the beauty of the book and the reason the critics swoon over it — that Nabokov can essentially trick the reader into having feelings for this monster.
I honestly had a little bit of a struggle tracking the storyline here, knowing where our characters were and where they were going, but it didn’t really bother me. I was turning pages as fast as I could to see where things were going. And not — I repeat NOT — because I was excited to read some filthy pedophilic erotica, but rather because I was absolutely fascinated by this character (Humbert Humbert, not Lolita). And the interesting thing to me is that there isn’t any “filth” in this book. There’s conceptual filth, but not literal filth — there are no sex scenes per se, although conjugal relations are talked about — and so none of the words themselves are “dirty.” And as I said before, it’s amazing how wrapped up you can get in such offensive subject matter without being offended, because of Nabokov’s gift for telling the tale through the eyes of our narrator.
I personally wouldn’t call this the best work of fiction of the last 100 years, but hey — I’m not a qualified critic. I will say, though, that I feel a great sense of value and reward as I check the box on having read this one.
Update: When we posted this, we didn’t know that Lolita was published on this date in 1958 nor did we know that it was “first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication.”
The Decatur Book Festival is auctioning off quality time with seven authors to benefit The Decatur Education Foundation. Winners get to spend an hour at the insanely excellent Brick Store Pub yacking it up over craft beers with their favorite writers:
The authors – all of whom are appearing at the Festival Sept. 2-4 – agreed to spend 1 hour with the highest bidder, enjoying drinks and conversation at Decatur’s famous Brick Store Pub. Fans can place their bids on eBay until Aug. 24 (search term: “Book the Brick”). Sponsored by the AJC DBF and the Decatur Education Foundation, the “Book the Brick” auction was designed to raise money for youth literacy programs in the community. Winning bidders also receive a signed copy of the author’s latest book.
Get the full scoop here.
Putnam County, GA sheriff Wilford Brimley reports that the statue of Br’er Rabbit that was stolen from the Eatonton Court House square has been found. The statue has had it’s ear broken off and is headed to an “iron veterinarian.” Br’er Fox is reportedly sought for questioning in the disappearance.
There is now a Kindle in my home. It belongs to my wife’s, not me. Still. There it is. We’re officially e-reading. I had broached the Kindle frontier first earlier this year. I had to download the Kindle app on my Android phone to be able to read electronically submitted review copies from publishers/authors. It works pretty well for most books. There was an ill-fated attempt to read Moby-Dick (Hey! It’s free!) on my phone. I don’t recommend the experience. At this point, our print books far outnumber our e-books, and we have no plans to not buy print books in the future. I’m interested to see how the physical Kindle changes our reading habits though.
A recent post at The Millions nicely sums up “…the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover” caused by the Kindle. Meanwhile, The Guardian imagines the post-print book world that the Kindle may bring about. The Financial Times says it’s the summer of the Kindle and examines what that means for authors and publishers.
Philip Levine named new US Poet Laureate
Unrelated: Cool New Websites Every Bookworm Should Bookmark. You know what to do.
The Millions has the story of a Turkish author’s apparent plagiarism of Zadie Smith
Was the decision by top publishers to set their own prices for e-books “price fixing”?
Have you seen this rabbit?
A 250 pound iron statue of Br’er Rabbit has gone missing from its home on the courthouse square in Eatonton, GA. That rascally rabbit can’t stay out of the news. Police are searching nearby briar patches for clues.
The Edgar Allen Poe House museum may have to close soon due to a second straight year of $0 funding from the City of Baltimore. Will the upcoming movie “The Raven” starring John Cusack as Poe save the day?
If you find yourself in Baltimore, have someone cover you and go check it out. The Poe House is located in the neighborhood made famous by HBO’s The Wire, so be careful! If you can’t make it to Baltimore soon, The Wren’s Nest gang offers an excellent guided tour of the experience.
Had I known the subject of The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, prior to reading Barnacle Love, I could have written a great comparison between the two. Both deal with individuals moving to a new land – trying to fit in. In Barnacle Love, the main character has a difficult time of it, and the ending isn’t happy or warm and fuzzy. Ms. Gonzalez however, brings us a YA novel with a more pleasant ending that I enjoyed.
Unbeknownst to me, in 1961 thousands of parents loaded their children onto boats and planes to escape the communist changes of the Cuban revolution. This event was called Operation Pedro Pan. Ms. Gonzalez’s parents were part of this exodus and their story was the inspiration for The Red Umbrella.
Fourteen year old Lucia and her younger brother, Frankie, are living a very comfortable, carefree life in Cuba until they notice soldiers all over town. Their father loses his job as a government official and after returning from an unexplained absence is forced to find work as a manual laborer.
Lucia just wants to be a normal girl. She tries to engage her best friend, but she attends the Communist youth camps, and is obsessed with Castro and the great changes he is bringing to the people of Cuba.
Lucia’s parents manage to secure visas for the kids and they are shipped to the United States – alone. They spend a few months at a a camp in Florida and thanks to some connections, both are lucky enough to travel to the same foster family in Nebraska.
While in Nebraska Lucia confronts the same challenges as all teenage girls. In addition to her coming of age issues, Lucia has to deal with the issues of being different and not knowing if she’ll ever see her parents again.
Although Lucia tells a story that relates to teenagers of any era, this isn’t 2011, it is 1961. Leave it to Beaver was still on the airwaves. This was also the age of The Kennedy’s, space exploration, the Cold War, West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a more naïve part of our history when international travel was not common for most Americans. Cubans, in particular, were treated with a bit of caution due to the events surrounding the Bay of Pigs.
Lucia has a few rebellious moments during her self discovery, but manages to keep her head up and stay positive.
Ms. Gonzalez brought me to tears throughout The Red Umbrella. As a mother, I can not imagine sending my child away with the uncertainty that I may never see her again. Also as an adult, I would have enjoyed learning more about this period in Cuba’s history through the story, but, the book wasn’t written for me, the adult. It was written for the young adult.
The Red Umbrella would be a great addition to a young adult’s libryary. Reading about someone else’s struggles can be very therapeutic. Throw in some Cuban and American history and our YAs will become more worldly. I’m hanging onto this one for my daughter.
Lev Grossman on Why Fantasy Isn’t Just for Kids: in the Wall Street Journal
Related: NPR is looking for your help to narrow the top 100 sci-fi/fantasy novels to a manageable top 10
The Rumpus says it may be time to update high school English in this piece by Latoya Jordan.
Bringing in modern literature won’t save education, but it could get more students interested in reading and increase reading comprehension.
Favorite books of the secretly jerky - is Atlas Shrugged on the list? You know it is.
Jon Favreau has recruited Michael Chabon to co-write a screenplay called ““Magic Kingdom,” which is a Disney movie about a family that gets caught inside Disneyland.”
Barnes and Noble gets accused of a ”liberal conspiracy to suppress” Glenn Beck’s new novel.
Atlanta’s Alliance Theater has announced that its upcoming season includes an original musical with “book” by Stephen King, lyrics and music by John Mellencamp, and musical arrangements by T Bone Burnett. Huh.
Still wrestling with my thoughts on this Op-Ed by an Atlanta bookseller that says (more or less) that book store contraction was inevitable because there aren’t that many people who care about books: Humility returns to book business
Another Atlanta bookseller is giving up his book selling job to write
This week Rep Lamborn (R- Co) criticized the President’s policies as a “tar baby.” The ladies on The View took up the cause, which lead to 50 Cent weighing in with a completely inaccurate origin of the phrase on Twitter.
These sorts of shenanigans can be a headache for Lain Shakespeare the Executive Director of the Wren’s Nest, an Atlanta house museum “dedicated to preserving the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris and the heritage of African American folklore.” Joel Chandler Harris collected the Uncle Remus stories in print. If your first reaction to that is “Uncle Remus? That’s racist!” Please take a moment to read Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus is Wrong.
I plan to be very enthusiastic about the Atlanta Opera’s upcoming Brer Rabbit children’s opera, so let’s all be on the same page. I don’t want you to call me bad names. And go visit the Wren’s Nest when you’re in Atlanta.