Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Breath of Snow and Ashes

I'll remember the summer of 2014 as my summer of Outlander. In three months, I read the first six books in the series, spent an enjoyable evening listening to author Diana Gabaldon at the Traverse City Opera House during her National Writers Series appearance, and got hooked on the television adaptation on Starz. I could've finished all eight books by this Labor Day weekend if I had not decided to give myself a break and do something else. I'll continue with the next book soon.

With regard to the television series, the casting director nailed it with Sam Heughan. I predict he'll do for Jamie Fraser what Colin Firth did for Mr. Darcy.  

One would think that after some 6,000 pages of Jamie and Claire, I would be tiring of this couple. Not even close. If anything, the length of the novels -- which is largely due to Ms. Gabaldon's attention to the details of the world she's created -- makes the reading experience even more immersive and difficult to abandon. Ms. Gabaldon writes well and her fascinating characters are so alive they become friends. OK, I exaggerate, but only slightly.

I enjoyed book six, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, as much as the previous five, and I want to hurry up with my "break book" so I can check out book seven.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Magicians

As the last novel in Lev Grossman's trilogy has been released to rave reviews, I decided to read the first in the series, The Magicians. Some describe this novel as "Harry Potter in college," and that's not a bad tagline for the plot. Imagine more cynical versions of Harry, Ron, Hermione and friends at college with the concerns of that age group: drugs, alcohol and sex, with only magical studies to differentiate them from their peers at, say, Dartmouth.

As the story begins, Quentin, the main character, is preparing for his Princeton interview but is instead offered an opportunity to enroll in a mysterious magical college. Of course, he accepts and the rest of the story concerns his adventures at Brakebills, hidden in upstate New York and reached through magical portals.

But Brakebills is not Hogwarts, and Quentin is not embarked on a quest to save the magical world from an evil wizard. Indeed, Quentin has no quest at all, which contributes to his general sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As a child, Quentin became obsessed with a series of books set in the fantasy world of Fillory (basically C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia). We learn of this obsession at the very beginning of the story, and if this novel has a theme, here it is:

"But there was a more seductive, more dangerous truth to Fillory that Quentin couldn't let go of. It was almost like the Fillory books -- especially the first one, The World in the Walls -- were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock that stands in a dark, narrow back hallway in his aunt's house and slips through into Fillory (Quentin always pictured him awkwardly pushing aside the pendulum, like the uvula of a monstrous throat), it's like he's opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually did: get you out, really out of where you were and into somewhere better."
Therein lies the heart of Quentin's journey into self-discovery, and one I look forward to reading more about in the second book of the trilogy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rebuilding the Foodshed

The selection for this quarter's community resiliency read, Rebuilding the Foodshed by college professor Philip Ackerman-Leist combined optimism with a reality check. My friend Diane's review of it is much better than any I could write, so all I need to do is decide what to cook for the potluck.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Fiery Cross

The fifth installment in the Outlander series, The Fiery Cross is definitely slower-paced than the preceding four, and perhaps if I had begun reading the novels as they were released, I would have been disappointed to wait three or four years for more breathless Jamie-Claire adventures only to be find them nearly collapsing into the rocking chairs on the porch of their 1770s Appalachian homestead. There's still plenty of drama and passion to be had wherever this duo finds themselves, but in this novel, their creator gives them a little time to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of home and community, and after reading the previous four novels in the span of eight weeks, I was happy to catch my breath as well.

Diana Gabaldon is such a fine storyteller and writes her characters so vividly that even the details of potty training on the frontier can charm and engage the reader. And this particular novel is an exemplary exercise in storytelling. Many of the supporting characters -- and there are legions of them -- get a chance to tell their own stories by campfire or hearthside. I can imagine this novel being serialized in a 19th century newspaper or magazine, or being read by Mrs. March to her daughters as was "Pilgrim's Progress" in Little Women. This is a novel for people who enjoy stories that unfold slowly.