08 April 2012

The Magicians & The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King in a whirlwind four (maybe five - can't remember) days.  Both were in the order of 400 pages.  It felt good to get lost in a book (or in this case books) again.

Full disclosure: having read both books so close together, I am reviewing them together, therefore there will be spoilers.  I doubt anyone actually reads this blog, but just in case, you have been warned.

People have compared Grossman's books to lots of things, and quite fairly, too: Harry Potter and Narnia being the most often cited examples, but I've also seen it compared to Wizard of Oz.  Strangely, though, nothing I've read has compared it to what it most made me thing of: Stephen King's The Dark Tower series.

A strange comparison, I admit.  After all, The Magicians starts out with disaffected, undiagnosed-bipolar Brooklyn teenager Quentin Coldwater being admitted to a school for magic.  It follows his education - like Harry Potter.  Follows him out of school, to a life of alcoholism and tedious hedonism in Manhattan, where he succeeds to thoroughly mess himself up before finally getting drawn into the magical world of Fillory - a world depicted in several novels for children, which he loved growing up and still did as an adult.  A world with so many parallels to Narnia as to seem, on the surface, like the most derivative fan-fiction.

And yet, it is not derivative.  What sets it apart from what came before is the same thing that sets apart The Dark Tower: its unforgiving realness, its thesis that even in fantasy good people are going to do bad things; that sometimes people don't learn from their mistakes; that douchebags and assholes sometimes get rewarded while nice people die; and that the power to have anything you want so often goes hand-in-hand with never finding happiness.

The Magician King follows this up with Quentin and friends as rulers of Fillory, but they have to, once more, undertake a Quest.  This time around, the narrative jumps around quite a bit, interweaving the story of Quentin's adventure with the past of his friend and fellow ruler, Julia - a girl he knew back in Brooklyn, before he went off to Brakebills (the magical school).  Julia had been tested, too, but didn't make it, and spent the next several years in a sort of personal hell, tormented by the memory of what might have been and an awareness that just beneath the surface of the mundane world lay another one, filled with wonder.

As Quentin learned in The Magicians, living in that world can have a terrible price, and Julia pays it full measure.

Perhaps the central thesis of both novels can be best summed up in the words of Ember, the ram-god of Fillory, an Aslan-like figure of imperturbable godliness.  Quentin, having completed his quest, complains that the hero gets the reward.  But Ember replies "The hero pays the price."

That's a sentiment with echoes of Tolkien as well.  Frodo tells Sam at the Gray Havens that sometimes one person has to give something up so that others can keep it.

I don't know if The Magician King was the end of Quentin's story.  I kind of hope it wasn't.  But if it was, I'm okay with that.  It was a satisfying, bittersweet ending, and it's okay to have those.  Much as I love books that end happily, it's okay when things don't.  That's real life.  And, as Quentin gradually learns, real life has its own magic, too, if only we can find it.

One thing, though.  In The Magicians, students at Brakebills are assigned a Discipline, a magical speciality.  Quentin's is left "undecided," since the faculty can't quite figure out what to make of him.  He makes sparks, which his teacher finds fascinating, but has no idea what to do with.  It's something frequently mentioned throughout both books: characters wonder what Quentin's Discipline is, but we haven't found out yet.  I really want to know.  Maybe there'll be a third book after all!

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Books: Just finished the above.  Don't know what's next.  I have a few Wine Spectators to catch up on first.

Bottles: Nothing lately.

Writing: About 20% done I think, maybe more, maybe less, but I'm plugging away at it and feeling good about it.

Guitar: Same exercises as last time.  Feeling more competent about "Shine On."

04 April 2012

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

Hope: A Tragedy was...well...I suppose, in the end, it was a tragedy.  I'd read a review of the book which led me to believe its sense of dark humor might be right up my alley...but, alas, it was not.

That's not to say it was a badly written book.  The characters were interesting, well-fleshed-out, and real.  I just didn't like them.  Any of them.  Perhaps that was the point.  But I also didn't like the plot that much.

In fact, to be honest, I didn't really like much about the book at all.  It seemed to move from one depressing episode to another, all the while exploring the ineptitude and inaction of the main character who was imminently capable of dealing with his problems, but simply didn't.

I really wanted to like the book.  I tried.  I made it all the way through it.  But in the end, when things were beginning to look up and I thought, "Hey, this wasn't so bad," it turns out I had forgotten the title of the book.  Or rather its subtitle: A Tragedy.

I don't know what made me expect a happy ending.  Or at least a satisfying one.  But I got neither.  Instead I was left with the futility of life.

I read Hope: A Tragedy because I felt the need for a break from reading Gravity's Rainbow.  Well, it did not help.  I didn't particularly like Hope: A Tragedy, and it turns out I don't really like Gravity's Rainbow either.  But the latter is 800 pages long.  At page 150 I've decided I'm not going to waste valuable reading time on something I really, really don't like.

So, onward to new horizons, and new books!

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Books: Going to start on Lev Grossman's The Magicians tomorrow, I think.  Hopefully it will be good!  I can't take a third book in a row that I don't like!

Bottles: Nothing lately.

Writing: 3 chapters done so far.  I feel like I'm picking up steam.

Guitar: Going further on the Carcassi in E; also looking at a riff from Foo Fighters' "Let it Die."

01 April 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


There are certain books that are so good, so engrossing, that you just can’t put them down until you’ve reached the end.  Harry Potter was like that.  The Hunger Games, too.  And, most recently, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.  While at first it might seem strange that all of the books I listed are classified as “Young Adult,” I don’t necessarily think that means I’m simply a sap for “Young Adult” books.  Rather, I think it more likely that “Young Adult” books are able to get across truths which can reach both our hearts and our minds with equal urgency, without burdening themselves with the prose and, for lack of a better word, intellectualism that “Adult” books tend to contain.

So, anyway, The Fault in Our Stars.  Wow.  I went into the book with high expectations, having read review after review full of glowing praise, and I have to say it did not disappoint.  That praise was well-deserved.

The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of Hazel Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl suffering from terminal (though currently stable) cancer, and the boy she falls in love with, Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor.

As far as protagonists go, Hazel has the most unique voice I have heard since the film Juno.  Her wit and humor shine throughout the novel, in spite of and perhaps because of the harsh reality she is facing.  One of my favorite passages:

“I guess I had been looking toward the Encouragement above the TV, a drawing of an angel with the caption Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy?  (This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.)”

Like Hazel herself, the story is full of equal parts humor and heartbreak, of triumph and tragedy.  But most amazing of all is how real it all is.  I have been thoroughly absorbed before, I have read characters and felt I knew them as a dear, close friend before, but even so, it remains one of the great miracles of literature each and every time it happens.  And it happened for me with this book.

The issues it explored were also especially resonant to me given my own current endeavors in writing.  Dealing with death and loss, from the point of view both of those going and those left behind - this is at the core of Into the Shining Sun, though it takes a different angle in approaching it.  Even so, I found it invaluable.

One of the passages led to a particularly insightful observation for me.  In Chapter Twelve, one of the characters goes on a rant about the permissiveness afforded to sick people, especially the terminally ill, and says that people do it out of pity.   That line really got me thinking; and as I thought about it I realized that I consider it more a sign that seeing someone struggle to live reminds us of the preciousness of life and the imperative to be kind to each other.

Thinking so much about death - both with Fault and with my own book - has reminded me of the wonder of each day, the miracle of life, cheesy though it may sound.  The grass has seemed a little greener, the sun a little brighter, since I read the book and have been reminded to take joy in every day.  For that, if for nothing else, I am grateful.

I got The Fault in Our Stars from the library; immediately after finishing it I purchased the eBook in iBooks.  I plan to get a hard copy next time I am at the book store.  It’s a book I truly don’t mind owning two of.

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Books: Working on Gravity's Rainbow, which is super dense and taking a long time, so took a break from it to read Hope: A Tragedy.  Thankfully not dense but taking longer than I want it to; I keep getting distracted.

Bottles: Some good Cotes-du-Rhone table wine recently.

Writing: Slowly working on the rewrite.  Got to be more proactive in doing at least one chapter every two days.

Guitar: Got a new Carcassi study, and a new exotic scale to practice.  Still working on "Shine On".