Books, August 2017

Apparently this month’s theme is that I don’t like and/or get poetry.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, traditional, translated by JRR Tolkien

So, as far as epic poetry goes, this was pretty good. There was some real action, some beautiful imagery, weird and wacky Middle English vocabulary (translated, of course, but even the modern English sent me scrambling for a dictionary a few times), and of course the pen of the original nerd of fantasy literature, JRR himself.


I have just never really gotten poetry. I read some words stuck together with a meter and some rhymes, and to paraphrase A Chorus Line, I feel nothing. But I like music, which is basically a poem to music. I quite like a lot of songs that are poetry set to music, even though I don’t especially like the poems by themselves. I’m totally down with real live people performing metered verse (such as in some Shakespeare) or epic poetry (bonus points for lyres). I dig Dr Seuss and Shel Silverstein (so I apparently have the poetry sophistication of a kindergartener).

But books of supposedly deep, philosophical, aesthetic poems? I just don’t get it. And that’s not even getting into free verse. If it doesn’t have a meter or rhyming….. what is it?? How is this structureless blob of words considered art? What am I supposed to feel about poems that look like I threw a box of Magnetic Poetry at a non-magnetic surface?

If you are a person who loves poetry, and you want to explain to me what great artistry of poems I’m missing (especially that’s unique relative to music), and what the heck free verse is supposed to be, PLEASE TELL ME YOUR SECRETS.

Genre: epics, medieval poetry. Format: poetry. Rating: 2/3 but only because I can recognize that objectively this is a good example of its genre even though I didn’t really like it for two points worth of liking it

The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling *

This was a story about people making mountains out of molehills in small-town, mostly low-stakes lives (with the notable exception of the Fields storylines, which were literal life and death). Rowling’s writing style, both in this and in Harry Potter, drew some criticism for being rather straightforward and plain. To which I say – is that such a problem?

There’s a time and place for flowery or high-literature or poetical writing, but it doesn’t have to be every book, and frankly I often find it distracting. Especially in a setting such as this, where the characters’ lives are equally workaday, and flowery language would be tonally incongruent. Even in the case of Harry Potter, where the fantastical setting lends itself better to more animated prose, got by just fine. I would rather have unremarkable word choices fade out and end up focusing exclusively on content than I would like to fight through distractingly purple prose. Not every story calls for prominent language.

There seems to be an expectation that literary fiction (which this is) must have obtrusively beautiful prose, and that only such literary fiction gets to be real literature, and that all the other genres are somehow lesser (collectively “genre fiction,” as though there’s somehow *real* fiction and *genre* fiction and never the pair shall meet). Which is why all the major literary awards don’t nominate fantasy or mystery, those genres have their own awards whereas literary fiction is just called “best book of the year” or something similarly claiming status as the only real fiction. And further, once you’ve written anything other than literary fiction (or maybe mystery or romance, if the critics are feeling generous) you can never be a haute author. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with those books – I’m just miffed that they are somehow considered the only true literature.

In any case, regardless of the critics, Rowling is laughing all the way to the bank.

Note that this book is definitely not geared to HP’s core demographic, and includes topics that may be triggering – rape, drug abuse, child abuse, mental illness, self harm, suicide. You don’t want to give this to your ten-year-old cousin who loves Harry Potter.

Genre: literary fiction. Format: novel. Rating: 2/3 but as with poetry, just not really my genre

The Long Mars and The Long Utopia, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I picked this series back up after having read the first two over a year ago. It centers on the premise that our universe is just one in a long chain of parallel universes, each of which represents a divergence in the time stream. The farther out you travel in the chain of universes, the larger the divergence becomes. But I realized while reading these – if each world is supposed to represent a marginal change from the next ones over in the chain of divergence, why did modern humans develop in only one universe? There should be parallel but slightly different versions of human civilization in neighboring universes, which by the story’s definition, are only slightly different from our own universe. (There are three other species of sapients introduced – two of which have natural interdimensional travel ability, and just mostly avoid humans, while the third is confined to just one universe, and so suffers from the same logical hole.)

When the first mass interdimensional steps happen, in Wisconsin at the beginning of the first book, they shouldn’t have fallen into a pristine forest – they should have appeared in a Wisconsin where variations of our universe’s Wisconsinites make goat cheese instead of cow cheese. Or where Laverne and Shirley was called Shirley and Laverne. Or the Packers wear… not whatever color they wear. You’d get to pristine forests eventually – you’d just have to go farther out, to worlds where modern humans (or similar species) never evolved, or died out. That would have been so cool! Someone refer me to a book with that premise please.

In any case, I still am thoroughly enjoying the philosophical exploration of the ramifications of the long Earth, as it’s called, especially in this book as they trek farther out than anyone has been known to go before. I’m not terribly a fan of the superhuman The Next storyline, where the extended multiverse has spurred the emergence of an ultrasmart but borderline sociopathic human subspecies. But I’m hopeful the series will finish strong, with one book to go.

Genre: idea, science fiction. Format: novels. Rating: 2/3, even ignoring the giant plot hole

The Grand Tour, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermere

This is book two of three in this series and it continues to be adorable. I love it when magic systems run into consequences of their own properties as a plot driver – in this case, barely-understood or partially lost ancient magic being dug up (sometimes literally) and applied to nefarious ends. This is not a bug of the magic system, but a feature, and one that the authors manipulated nicely to put our heroes in a corner that they barely saw coming. The use of multiple Chekhov’s guns, some of which were set up in the previous book and pay off here, is delightful – I love it when authors take the time and effort to pay attention and use their inventions intentionally.

I wish the authors had taken the time to develop major supporting characters James and Thomas a little more – I understand our narrators are still getting to know them themselves, but Thomas in particular got away with far too much “I can’t tell you for your own good” and other annoyingly exposition-hoarding tropes. But our narrators themselves are just so charming, and their uncompetitive, comfortable, dependable friendship is so delightful. Cecilia’s Venetian misadventure and its consequences down the line were particularly carefully and smartly constructed.

Also, the authors writing not one but three epistolary novels in character together, by literally writing letters back and forth and then stapling it together and calling the publisher, is honestly friendship goals.

Genre: adventure, mystery. Format: (epistolary) novel. Rating: 3/3

{NOTE: I accidentally wrote this up with August, but I actually finished it in early September. My comments are reproduced in the September page.}

* contains material suitable for ages 14 and up