Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Avalanche!

29. Redwall by Brian Jacques

This is the first book in a series that was around when I was a kid, but as it was popular with those I considered less sophisticated readers than myself, I scorned to read it, and in hindsight missed out on a carefully crafted, archetypal "animal fantasy" that would probably have been helpful to my development as a reader and writer of fantasy. Fortunately, it's not too late, and I recently read this mouse-centric tome with the excuse that we are teaching it to the kids in our summer program Modern Fantasy class.

Redwall is primarily the story of the small novice mouse Matthias, of Redwall Abbey, and his triumph against the war-mongering rat Cluny the Scourge. Classic references abound, as the old sage gatekeeper mouse is called Brother Methuselah and the pink fingers of dawn rise more than once (oh Homer, could not your Muse have left us to ponder that in peace, just once or twice?). Matthias itself brings to my mind a reference to the original Maccabee (father of Judah, hero of Hanukkah), but that might be a stretch too far. Or perhaps not. In any case, Matthias is the spiritual successor to Martin the warrior, whose legendary sword he goes on a series of quests to find. Meanwhile, Jacques develops a charming cast of woodland heroes and villains, with comic foibles, roving allegiances, and above all, revealing names ranging from rats Redtooth and Cheesethief to Constance the Badger and Basil Stag Hare (a rabbit, in case any one is in doubt). Jacques' writing is clean and complete, and with such a large amount of characters, his transitions between them and the "keeping track" factor is minimized with careful chapters and textual signals.

It's no wonder our kids loved it and got into the characters in an almost Harry Potter-esque fashion. I also like that Jacques does not shy away from death, though his systematic destruction of all the villains is a little too indulgent. Continuing the series may not be worth it for me (though I'm sure i would enjoy it), but for kids in the 8-12 range, this is top-quality, maybe even worth devoting a summer to.

30. Elfsong by Elaine Cunningham

This is a Forgotten Realms book, from my boyfriend's childhood stash, as I was in the mood for some comfort fantasy. It's got little depth in plot or character, but the world is sufficiently surprising to make it entertaining and the characters are mostly likable and understandable. The writing isn't too bad, it has a bold descriptive quality. I wouldn't really recommend it, but not the worst thing to pick up on a lazy day either.

31. The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

I'd read this when I was younger, and all but forgotten everything about it. This is another book we're doing with the kids so I read it for a refresher. I also hadn't realized before that it was part of a series, the second book at that.

The books are apparently based on Welsh mythology, which I know nothing about, but the characters all seem to possess vast quantities of red hair. The protagonist is Taran the assistant Pig-Keeper, who along with his sidekicks the tomboy Princess Eilonwy and subservient, oddly-syntaxed twig and leaf man Gurgi, sets out to recover the Black Cauldron of the evil Lord Arwan. I have left out that this is at the behest of Taran's apparent former liege lord Prince Gwydion as well as the Wizard Dallben, who is raising him, and in the company of a couple others including the dwarf Doli of invisible powers and proud, irascible Prince Ellidyr.

Their journey leads them to Orwen, Orgoch, and Orddu, three enchantresses probably not gratuitously reminiscent of the Three Fates, where Taran pays a price for the evil Cauldron, which creates mindless undead soldiers, so that he can destroy it. The fellowship is betrayed, but one of the traitors redeems himself in ultimate sacrifice. Does this remind you of any other modern epic?

While Alexander's creation does, despite my allusion, have a plot and characters all its own, it does lack the depth of Middle Earth and certainly the strength of writing that Tolkien displayed. A nice book for children, but nothing for an adult to take seriously.

32. The Human Stain by Philip Roth

This is my first Philip Roth book, finally. I have to say, I both see and don't see what all the fuss is about. The book, which, from what I hear, shares this quality with his other books, is simultaneously a sweeping and focused canvas of typically American issues. The Human Stain is about uniquely American puritanism, in matters of morality and of race.

It is a book of ideas, but it is also a book about people. Roth does not let his characters lose their individuality, even as they represent issues of foreignness, multiculturalism, feminism, racial passing, veteran issues, and battered women. They come to represent these issues, but because they are so complete, they never fully can. They are always stained, tinted, with something else, other ideas and influences, and their own ideas about themselves and their identities. Using the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal as a backdrop to the affair of a retired college professor of seventy-one and an allegedly illiterate cleaning woman of thirty-four is a clever idea, and it works. Purity is all about perception, for no one is totally pure, though in Roth's world, no one is totally corrupt either. Even his villains are sympathetic characters whose struggles with their own purity of identity lead them to lash out at others.

The more I think about The Human Stain, the more I appreciate it. I do have to note though that with all his diversity of character, Roth's writing is not for the uneducated. It is erudite and complex, written in the language of academia it writes about. As for Roth's legendary alter-ego narrator Nathan Zuckerman, I'm reserving judgment on him. I have a feeling I don't know the half of it.

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