Month: May 2011

2011 Book #27: The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken

2011-05-26 22:19:08 -0500-0.jpgI read The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken by accident, though I’ve been meaning to read it for years. I’d just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and was waiting for UPS to deliver The Savage Detectives, and I figured I’d read a couple of the stories. This collection includes my very favorite short story ever, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” so I thought I’d enjoy the rest of them. Once I started reading, I found myself enjoying the stories differently than I’d expected to. I thought they’d all be like “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” but they’re not.

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” is about a boy, who, one morning in his bedroom, imagines that snow is falling. He hears the postman coming down the street as he always does, but his footsteps from the farthest house are muffled due to the snow. The boy gets up, looks out the window, and sees that there is, in fact, no snow at all. He becomes obsessed with the snow, hearing it in the mornings and imagining it all day, and he loses interest in real life. His parents and teacher are concerned, as his condition progresses very quickly. Every morning, he imagines the snow getting deeper and deeper, and he can only hear the postman when he gets closer and closer. Eventually, the boy recedes completely into his world of snow, oblivious to his parents and the real world around him.

I’ve always liked that story. I think I read it for the first time when I was in high school. I don’t remember whether it was assigned or not or how I found out about it. I still have a copy of it from a library book. The funny thing is that I own the library book, now, and that’s what I read. I don’t remember how I got that, either. It’s from the main branch of the Jefferson Parish Library, and I assume I got it from a book sale. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for years, waiting to be read.

And I like it most of the stories. I only really like two of them, though: “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and “Mr. Arcularis,” which is about a man taking a boat to Europe after surgery in the US. He meets a woman, and things turn out interestingly. Lots of stories in this collection are about failed love, and some, like “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” are about crazy people.

I did a bit of reading about Conrad Aiken, and it appears that love and insanity were some of his major concerns. Evidently, when he was a kid, his father went crazy and killed his mother. He was always afraid he would go crazy himself. And he was married three times. In an interview with The Paris Review, he said he was primarily a poet, but he started writing short stories for the money and decided he liked them. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of his poems, and I’m not to interested in doing so. He was a friend of T.S. Eliot‘s and surprisingly influential in the literary world in the 1920s and 1930s.

I don’t see myself revisiting Aiken, though I enjoyed the stories. I’ll probably stumble across “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” or “Mr. Arcularis” again, but his other work doesn’t interest me.

2011 Book #26: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_cover.jpegI’d wanted to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell since I first saw it on bookshelves a few years ago. I didn’t really know much about it except that it involved magicians but isn’t really fantasy. Which meant to me that it might not suck. I had a feeling that I’d really like it, but I didn’t even try reading it because it’s so long. Like 900 pages long. In fact, if you count Lord of the Rings as three books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the longest book I’ve ever read. But, you say, I have an English degree! Colleges don’t assign long books anymore, so I wasn’t in the habit. Even Lord of the Rings took me several months to read, and I was quite impressed with myself after finishing it.

Here’s the most basic of summaries, as the plot is quite complex (note: there are spoilers.): In early ninetenth-century England, there is a society of magicians. They don’t actually practice magic – they just study it. Someone gets to wondering why no one in England practices magic anymore, and a couple members if the society find the one magician who actually practices magic: Mr. Norrell. Mr. Norrell wants to get involved in the government, to help England in its war against France, but no one in politics seems to respect magic. He has a cousin in Parliament, Sir Walter Pole, who refuses to help him. Sir Walter’s wife dies, though, and Mr. Norrell says he can bring her back to life, which he does, except he doesn’t exactly know what he’s doing. He asks a fairy, known as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, to help him. The fairy makes a deal, saying he’ll revive her as long as he gets half her life. Mr. Norrell thinks the fairy means that Lady Pole will only live for half her normal lifespan, but the actual deal is that Lady Pole will be spirited off to Faerie every night to dance in a ball, a captive of the fairy. So, since Mr. Norrell “helped” Lady Pole, he gets his foot in the door at Parliament and becomes involved in the war, using magic to defend England. Meanwhile, a younger man named Jonathan Strange stumbles into magic because nothing else interests him, and he eventually becomes Mr. Norrell’s student. He learns quickly and then goes off to Belgium to fight in the war. At some point, the fairy decides he wants Strange’s wife, Arabella, for his collection, so he charms a swamp log to look like her and then kidnaps her. The charm wears off after a few days, and it looks like Arabella is dead, though she is stuck in Faerie with Lady Pole. Then there are a few hundred pages of war and the like, and, somehow, it doesn’t get boring. Eventually, Strange and Norrell separate, and since Norrell has hoarded all the magic books in England, Strange runs out of material to study. Not knowing what Norrell did with the fairy, he decides to summon his own fairy. The problem is that it’s the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. The fairy refuses to help him, so Strange casts a spell and makes it to the fairy’s mansion, and he sees his wife at the ball. The fairy curses him and sends him home, and he obsesses over getting his wife back, deliberately making himself crazy in the process. Eventually, he convinces Norrell to help him, and they team up again, fading off into magicland together.

And that’s only the most skeletal of summaries.

I absolutely loved every minute of this novel. I was totally intimidated by its length, but it was so worth it. I was sad when it ended because Susanna Clarke had drawn me into a world I didn’t want to leave. The funny thing is that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was her first novel. I can’t wait to read the rest of them, though I have a feeling that after this one, I’ll find myself disappointed.

2011 Book #25: The Silent Land

The Silent Land.jpegI usually don’t read books like The Silent Land, which fits squarely into the pop-fiction category. I found it through a Facebook ad that claimed it’s like a Murakami novel. I was, of course, skeptical, but I downloaded it to my (new!) Kindle and gave it a try. It’s was really short: I read it in four or five hours, and I read pretty slowly. It’s about a couple skiing in Spain when they get caught by an avalanche. The husband digs out the wife, and they get down the mountain, but no one is there. The whole town is empty. At first, they think that the resort has been evacuated for fear of another avalanche, so they try to get out of town, but no matter what road they take, the always end up back there. The reader wonders if they’re dead, which seems kind of obvious if you’ve ever seen Beetlejuice, or if something else is going on. The power starts going out, and time gets confused. In the end, it turns out that only one of them is dead, which is a bit of a twist, I guess.

Though The Silent Land is a predictable pop-fiction thriller, I really liked it. Graham Joyce‘s imagery is really good: it was one of those novels in which I found myself totally absorbed. I was even creeped out at times. I wanted to find out what was going on as much as the characters did, so I found myself reading through it really quickly just to find out what would happen next. It’s totally worth a read.

2011 Book #24: Watership Down

bookcover.gifI tried reading Watership Down several years ago and failed. I remembered what happened more than halfway through the novel, so I’m surprised I didn’t just finish it. It is long, though. And it’s totally worth a read. I really enjoyed it, though reading from a rabbit’s point of view took a bit of getting used to. The novel is about rabbits starting their own warren and the Things that Happen. It’s amazingly violent – much more than I thought it would be. I haven’t seen the movie (or if I have, it’s been a really long time), but I bet it sticks pretty close to the novel’s plot. And Adams is great at imagery. I felt like I was in the warren with the rabbits.

The first time I tried to read Watership Down, I lived in Mid City, New Orleans. It was probably a year or two before the hurricane. My condo wasn’t in the best neighborhood, but it wasn’t terrible, either. Except a girl named Ashley lived next to me, and she sold prescription drugs, so ne’er-do-wells were often about, yelling up to her window. “AshLEY!” Urgh. Anyway, I was sitting in a recliner next to a window that looked out to my small patio. It had a privacy fence a good bit taller than me. I heard a noise, and a dude I assumed to be one of AshLEY’s “friends” jumped over my fence, grabbed my bicycle, shoved it over the fence, and jumped back over. Goodbye to my bike. Not that I really rode it or anything. I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat really still and watched him. I figured it’d be a bad idea to try and confront him since the only thing between us was a thin pane of glass.

I don’t really have a lot to say about this novel. I really liked it. There’s also a Tales from Watership Down that I’ll probably look into at some point. A novel about rabbits was certainly a change from what I’ve been reading lately.

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