Fantasy booklist: some Englishmen

Some Englishmen. To see websites and other books, click on author’s name.

51Y2rs8yjWLTerry Pratchett is funny, as in laugh out loud goofy (the gods of the Discworld live in a place called Dunmanifestin), as well as …how you say…satirical. It takes me awhile to get satire. So no surprise I started with Nation, which doesn’t take place on Discworld, but in an alternate 19th century South Pacific island world. Nation is about what happens to a shipwrecked English girl and a boy who is the sole survivor of his village after a tsunami; how they learn to communicate and take care of the people who wash up on their shores. Nation is more heroic fantasy than Discworld, but without swords and spells. Although there is one battle, Nation is much more about what Le Guin calls “how we harvested the wild oats”. (See her essays in Dancing on the Edge of the World.) It’s about the way societies are built and grow, outside of A Big Fight. It’s a beautiful book, and if I’d had it for more than a few years would rate the * that means it’s now falling apart.

On to Discworld: Pratchett’s female characters are full of what my grandmama called ‘piss and vinegar’ – from the witches in Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, The Wee Free Men, Hat Full of Sky, to the runaway girls and women, the female troll, vampire, and Igor in Monstrous Regiment, to Adora Belle, even though she’s only got a bit part in Going Postal and Making Money. (The con man turned post office director Moist von Lipwig is not only nuts about Adora Belle, he needs her around because she’s so scary. Without her he nearly reverts to his criminal ways, just to get the adrenaline pumping.)

Like Angela Carter, Pratchett notices a naked Emperor (and then points out the lack of clothing in a loud voice).

His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman: *The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass

Because these went into film you may know what they’re about: amazing parallel universe worlds, and what happens when the barriers between them are breached. The first book begins in an alternate Oxford, where everyone has a daemon – an animal whose soul is linked to their human’s. The animal changes shape throughout an individual’s childhood but settles on one shape around puberty. For instance, the scary villainess’s daemon is a golden monkey, a sailor has a seabird daemon, while the protagonist Lyra’s daemon can be a bird, a mouse, a tiger, a moth. There’s also a polar bear who is deposed bear royalty and a drunk; a cowboy parachutist; zeppelins, witches, gypsies, and scholars. And that’s only the first book. In the second book, there is also a boy from our world whose father has disappeared, and whose mother has gone a little crazy with fear of the shadowy men who are after them.

Pullman also wrote The Sally Lockheart Quartet, which he describes as Victorian thrillers, that feature a smart young woman making her way on her own.

Fantasy booklist: some Englishwomen

Some Englishwomen. The English are great at fantasy. They also review their fantasy authors’ books in the London Times. 

Angela Carter wrote many collections of short stories, including retellings of fairytales, that are dark, definitely adult reading, like The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (which includes a Bluebeard story), but my favorite is her last novel, which is very bright: *Wise Children, about the twins Dora and Nora Chance, ‘who love to sing and dance’, and are the illegitimate daughters of a famous Shakespearean actor. The novel follows their picaresque life, first in vaudeville, later in movies, as told by Dora. (I call this ‘fantasy’ because of its tone – but maybe it’s ‘fabulist’?) And Nights at the Circus, about a 6 foot tall cockney trapeze artist at the turn of the century (last one, not this one, so early 1900s) who has wings, and goes on tour in Russia.

Also, Shaking a Leg, a compilation of her essays and journalism, is one of those books that has something interesting to read no matter where you open it. Carter was one of those acute observers who noticed a naked Emperor. Click on her name for her biography (1940-1992), and links to other articles about her plays, articles, and many other books.

51oOJm4QBwLTanith Lee does hard-core adult fantasy, as well as light-hearted YA, as well as horror. Her *Flat Earth Series (5 or 6 books) is wonderful and a bit creepy, like an X-rated Arabian Nights (as when one of the Lords of Darkness steals an infant boy as his mother is dying in childbirth, because the infant looks like he’ll grow up to be pretty.) The Lords of Darkness include Death, the Demon, Madness (or Delirium, Delusion), and Fate (or Destiny), who appear as people, and have linked stories that intersect throughout the series. One book about the Demon’s daughter (Delirium’s Mistress) is more like a novel, following the fortunes and misfortunes of the daughter, her love affair with Madness, over centuries of life. This series and many of Lee’s other stories have an undercurrent of spiritual awe based on Eastern philosophy; they take reincarnation for granted, along with the working out of karma over many lifetimes, and the potential for good and evil in each character. Even the Demon is not simply dark; he has another side, but in some way it is up to his daughter to live out both sides fully. (Lee’s Lords of Darkness predated the Sandman comics; I like the way Neil Gaiman took inspiration from her, and that his Death did not appear as a man but as a young woman.)

Lee is prolific, so just some favorites (I’m skipping the horror because I can’t manage the scary stuff): a collection of short stories called *Tamastara, or The Indian Nights, magical events in past, present, and future Indias; a book of linked short stories plus novella about the adventures of *Cyrion, a swordfighting, nomadic Sherlock Holmes in an alternate historical Middle East that is rife with sorcery; *The Silver Metal Lover, about a poor little rich girl in a futuristic world who falls in love with a musician android sex toy; Sabella, about a young woman who is a Martian colonist and a vampire; and Saint Fire, a retelling of Joan of Arc in a medieval, alternate-world Venice, about a slave who can make fire come through her fingers. Lee is good at toppling reader expectations – she turns on a dime. Click on her name for a link to a Guardian UK blog post about her many, wonderful, underappreciated (and under the radar) books.

Doris Lessing also made forays into science fiction/fantasy, some stiff, some transcendent. One book was almost a fable, *The Marriages Between Zones 3, 4, and 5. A page-turner, with vivid characters and other worlds (the zones), despite the cumbersome title. Click on her name for a link to a site that has a bio, a list of all of her books, etc.

Fantasy booklist: getting started

This is the main genre not to fear – fantasy, with the et al. including science fiction (s.f.), speculative and fabulist fiction, magical realism, fairytales, and young adult (YA) and children’s fantasy-type fiction. There are a lot of names because there are so many ‘unrealistic’ stories told. For commentary on how the literary establishment, and many readers, regards these kinds of stories, and alternate ways to look at them ‘critically’ (as in, ‘thoughtfully’), try Ursula Le Guin’s essays in The Language of the Night, especially the chapter called “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (This essay is from 1979, so it’s the state of the art pre-Harry Potter; things have changed somewhat since then, at least insofar as money-making, but fantasy and its et al. is still looked down on as frivolous escapism. For Le Guin’s other literary criticism, see Dancing on the Edge of the World, and The Wave in the Mind.)

This list was compiled over the years for friends who had not tried fantasy or science fiction and were curious. I’ve marked my own favorites with an *. All books with an * have been read so often they are held together with tape and rubber bands.

*The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is so obvious it needs no explanation, but it was the first adult fantasy I read, and, like the Beatles’ song “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, it changed my life. In this case it opened up my reading universe.

*The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Banned in the Soviet Union for decades, the story of what happens when the devil comes to Moscow in the 1930s – and the only people who know who he is are a man who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate (and been reviled by the literary establishment, and driven crazy, because of it), and his mistress Margarita.

*Ursula Le Guin wrote a book about a young wizard named Ged and his schooling called *A Wizard of Earthsea, the first fantasy I was able to go into completely post-Tolkien. It was followed by *The Tombs of Atuan, which brought Tenar into the story, a young woman who had been taken as a child to be priestess of the tombs that Ged has come to rob. The last book is called The Farthest Shore, about death and what happens to those who try to avoid it.

OtherWindA decade or so later, Le Guin went back to Earthsea and wrote three more books about it, following up on the story of Tenar and Ged in Tehanu. Le Guin  re-tells Earthsea’s history (and develops it) in The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea, taking the point of view of the conquered and the hidden, to give a different version of what began as a boys-only club.

Some of her science fiction:

*The Lathe of Heaven, about a man in an overcrowded ‘future’ whose dreams come true and change reality, and the unscrupulous shrink who is trying to ‘cure’ him. A good intro to science fiction and Le Guin.

*The Dispossessed is about a temporal physicist named Shevek (who comes up with the theory behind the ‘ansible’, a future artifact that many other s.f. writers simply adopted once Le Guin’s character figured out instantaneous transmission between two spots vastly distant in space). Shevek lives on a planet where there is no money, and everyone is taken care of, and there are still power plays (!); to share his theory he has to travel to the corrupt and iniquitous planet that is more like ours (except in better shape).

The Left Hand of Darkness, about a world in an ice age, where everyone is neuter except for a week each ‘month’, when they become either male or female, so everyone can be either sex (the father of one child can be the mother of another). A planetary ambassador who is a man from a sort of interstellar UN, is at risk (his mission and his life) when political factions use him for their own ends, but the story is really about his friendship with a native wo/man, the difficulties they have in communicating across different cultures, what it means to trust and befriend ‘the other’.

*The Orsinian Tales, linked short stories about a parallel universe/Eastern European country.

Always Coming Home, an anthropological look at northern California in the far future.

And more…these are just a quick sample.

the Rights of Readers


drawing of winged books is from a site called decorated school

In nearly 60 years of reading, I have come up with a few ‘rights’ to counteract the unconscious rules I had about how and what to read. My mother and grandmother were English teachers; but I think many of us have these rules stuck in our heads somewhere…we let other people define what is ‘good’ to read and what isn’t, whether we’re going along with consensus or rebelling against it (as I used to do with best sellers — assumed they were all crap.) Along with the ‘rights’, which are really suggestions for how to enjoy what you read, I’ve included some examples.

If you’re reading on your own, for yourself, you don’t have to read anything that doesn’t interest you. (There’s a great Mark Twain quote about this; I’ll bet you already know it.*)

Just because you started a book doesn’t mean you have to finish it. If you want to know what happens but hate reading it, you can skim it or skip to the end. (Many people know this; but I didn’t until my mid-50s, which is why I include it here.)

Just because a best friend/lover/child/writer you respect/”educated people”/someone who writes for a magazine or the NY Times/etc. likes a book, doesn’t mean you have to. That’s why there’s more than one writer in the world, and more than one story, and more than one book.

Just because you were forced to read one book by an author that was called a ‘classic’ and that you hated, doesn’t mean you can’t read another book by that same author now and enjoy it. (Silas Marner by George Eliot was sooooo bad in high school English class; but five years later, Middlemarch became one of my reread-it-every-year books. Also happened with Doris Lessing — hated The Golden Notebook, years later fell in love with The Four-gated City.)

Just because the bookstore or library has shelved the book with children’s books or young adult (adolescent) books, doesn’t mean you can’t read it if you’re older. (I didn’t discover E. Nesbit and the Bastables until my twenties, and that’s the tip of the iceberg.)

If all your reading buddies are pushing a certain author or book at you, saying you will “love” this author’s stuff, and you can’t get into it, set it aside and try again next year. If the time is right, the book will speak to you, and when it does you’ll know right away. Or it won’t speak to you ever. That’s okay, too. (This happened with Robertson Davies — took me nearly a decade to be in the right mindset to read what became some all-time favorite books.)

Just because a book is a best-seller doesn’t mean it’s a good book or a bad book. It can be either. (My first foray into best sellers was Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Although I didn’t like the foreword, the rest of the book was wonderful, especially the different slant she had on the same stories that Marie Louise von Franz [hot-shot Jungian] had examined in The Feminine in Fairytales.)

Just because a book has gone out of print doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. (Selma Lagerlof’s Liliecrona’s House, just for instance, which finally came out from a publisher called Forgotten Books. Also Cam Hubert’s Dreamspeaker, R.A. MacAvoy’s The Grey Horse, Francine Prose’s Hungry Hearts. All of these verge on speculative fiction-fairytale…are not ‘realist’ books. There are a lot of good out-of-print books out there; these are off the top of my head.)

Just because a book is self-published doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. Think Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf. And Dorothy Bryant’s science fiction classic, The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You.

Fear no genre.

*From Mark Twain: “A classic is something everyone wants to have read, and no one wants to read.”

On Children’s Literature, Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grownups: Subversive Children’s Literature
from the foreword:

But I think we should also take children’s literature seriously because it is sometimes subversive: because its values are not always those of the conventional adult world. Of course, in a sense much great literature is subversive, since its very existence implies that what matters is art, imagination, and truth. In what we call the real world, on the other hand, what usually counts is money, power, and public success.

The great subversive works of children’s literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.

Imagining hope, the afterlife

My friend Pat Fero sent a suggestion for imagining hope – two books by Eben Alexander, MD, with Ptolemy Tompkins, entitled Proof of Heaven and The Map of Heaven. She calls them “the most positive books I’ve read in years.”

DownloadedFileTurns out that the first one is a best seller and a focus of heated debate. For anyone else who hasn’t come across them: the books are about the author’s near-death experience and what he extrapolated, as a neurologist, from it. Before Dr. Alexander’s coma from a brain infection, he defined himself as a scientific materialist; now he believes that what happened to him during his seven-day coma actually occurred in another dimension, which he calls the afterlife.

From what I’ve been able to gather Alexander is trying to prove that near death experiences (NDEs) can give scientific evidence that consciousness exists beyond the physical life of the brain (in NDEs that occur when the brain is no longer functioning). In other words, he believes that even after the physical self dies consciousness continues in another realm, one that he is calling heaven. And guess what? He’s drawing a lot of fire.

A book review by Patricia Pearson in The Daily Beast notes that the arguments for and against Alexander’s books are part of “a radically fractured discourse. For materialists, it goes without saying that Eben Alexander will lose you at hello.” At a talk by Alexander she also notes that the part of the audience that listens to him with interest instead of skepticism “cross[es] every demographic line you can name. They aren’t the Christian right. They aren’t the “wishful” grieving. They aren’t some special group of American Stupid. They include scientists and doctors . . . philosophers, and journalists, and engineers, and musicians. They just happen to have encountered something singular and startling, not materially explicable—which we might once have called an intimation of the Divine.”

Imagining hope, the writing exercise

Been telling friends about this writing exercise from Tristine Rainer’s book, Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography, but the exercise was actually put together by another author and memoir-writing teacher, Deena Metzger, along with a student in one of her classes. In DownloadedFileWriting for Your Life, Metzger recounts how this student had had such a barren upbringing (father dead, mother an alcoholic), that she felt she had no history, nothing to write about. Metzger suggested she write about an aunt of hers, an artist who lived in Manhattan, imagining whatever she didn’t know (which was nearly everything). Instead of simply making a portrait of her aunt, the student ended up writing an entire imaginary history, in which the aunt became her friend and mentor, and took her to live with her in NYC. According to Metzger, the student writer was transformed; she had changed how she felt in the present by creating a new past for herself.