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January Reading List

Edit because I just finished the last book on the list and it’s not yet February.

Mostly for my own use, though I’m happy to use comments to discuss anything on the list (or related recommendations), here are the books I remember reading this month. The theory is that this will become some sort of monthly ritual, but it’s easy to say that the first time around. I may give vague impressions of what I’ve read, but not necessarily. It’s really just so I have an archive and can feel like I’ve accomplished something, although it’s really nothing special, especially this time around.

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
Here Susan gets to show her prowess with her bow as well as her strength as a swimmer and everyone but Lucy has trouble seeing Aslan because they haven’t kept him at the front of their minds. Can you tell I’m still a bit bothered by how things turn out for Susan at the end of the series?

The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
Still and always my favorite of the lot. When I was in high school I had a bracelet I wore on my upper arm, high enough that it wasn’t below the sleeve of my uniform blouse, to remind me not to be beastly like Eustace. I’m not sure it worked.

The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
My favorite part is still the point near the end when the children and Prince Rilian and Puddleglum emerge into Narnia. While this might be one of the easiest to make into a movie since it’s basically a quest story, though the twists and turns will probably be tweaked and tightened, I’m not sure how successful the group that did the first movie would be at getting the wonder of fleeing from a destroyed world into Narnia and the way that twins and twists Jill and Eustace’s original descent into Narnia.

The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
I still have a soft spot for Aravis, although I don’t generally like stories about spoiled girls. I was never as keen on the horse’s boy, although the horses were and are a lot of fun. I know there are a lot of complaints that Lewis is racist because he made the Calormenes Arabesque (and I mean that in an overstated, loopy way) and then showed a lot of bad ones, but I’m not totally sold on this. Am I being a hypocrite and patronizing if I say that I think he was just too sheltered to be more sophisticated about the way children talk and act or the way cultures work? I do really think he was going for a cultural distinction; in creating a land bereft of Narnia’s natural bounty, he ended up with a desert place without magic or magical creatures. I’m inclined to believe that the desert came first and the characterization of the Calormenes after because he imagined desert-dwellers to be like the Arabs he’d only read about in mistranslations of the Arabian Nights. Since we learn later that honest worship of the Calormene god Tash doesn’t keep believers out of Narnian heaven, I don’t think there’s any sort of Christian/Muslim dichotomy being set up here. Since Aravis is fully accepted in non-Calormene society not only as a full person but (eventually) royalty, it seems to me that what’s going on is an explanation that true nobility has to do more with goodness and right judgment than birth or breeding. But there’s also the Mary Sue aspect of all this world-building, because Narnia is really just totally awesome and other places, well, aren’t. And if Lewis seems to relish it a bit, again I chalk it up to his misplaced nuance or to having too small a (rigid) view of the world. Of course I also don’t think it’s a bad idea for people who are bothered by the way race and gender are handled in the Narnia books to give up on them or object; I just happen to keep reading and let things nag at me here. Elsewhere I’m not so forgiving.

The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis
Maybe the weirdest and scariest Narnia book, but the idea of the world between worlds is a great one.

The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
Still sort of creepy, in part because everything happens so fast and remains so murky. It’s much easier to read as an adult than as a child, where I found it unsettling and puzzling. I’d rather it have been the story of the Calormene Emeth, who is faithful to his own god and therefore allowed to enter the afterlife-Narnia, because most of the other characters seem to be there mostly to tie up loose ends.

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Steven decided to get this after reading Pam Noles’s recent essay on race and the book at The Infinite Matrix. I wasn’t surprised by the resolution of the plot, but found it a pleasant, engaging story throughout, which sounds more patronizing than what I really want to say.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Much more to my liking, perhaps a sign that I’d overdone it on the young adult fantasy this month. I may try to write more on this later, about how much I enjoyed the way perceived gender issues played out and the way certain stereotypes persist into this future. I assumed at first that the narrator was a woman, which may be relevant. It was beautifully written story carried by strong voices, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
Maybe I do have more sympathy than I’d expect for spoiled heroines, because Tehar/Arha was captivating both in her self-absorption and her gradual opening as her world widens. This is my favorite of the Earthsea books I’ve read so far, perhaps because it has the most prominent female character, but I think also because it stays in one place for much longer and while the world-building is excellent throughout, I enjoyed the depth I got to see in the small desert shrine.

The Farthest Shore, Ursula K. Le Guin
The last of her books we have. I liked both the quest aspect and the underlying story about losing and regaining humanity.

Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon
Okay, rounding out the YA fantasy a bit is some lesbian pulp from the 50s! This one is left over from a class Steven took a few years ago, but I’d already read the sequel, I Am a Woman, from a legitimate pulp copy I’d found last fall. One of the most interesting unimportant details in this tale of sorority love was the revelation that the main character, Laura, does what we’d now call self-injury, pinching her arm until it bruises when she’s uncomfortable or needs to calm herself. The sex is, by my modern standards, not the least bit lurid and almost entirely elided, but the characters are strong and clear. I’m going to try to read the rest of the books featuring Beebo Brinker (and this wasn’t once since Laura doesn’t meet her until after she moves to New York at the end of the book) because they’re so fascinating as quasi-historical documents and as stories themselves. Last night’s trip to the county library let me find out that they don’t have any Bannon, but I haven’t yet looked at Cincinnati’s holdings. There’s still one more on the bedroom shelves that I can read before I have to start looking outside.

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
This one decidedly did not work for me. It tells the story of Odysseus’s famed wife Penelope from her perspective, backed by a chorus comprised of the maids who are hanged at the end of The Odyssey for having consorted with Penelope’s suitors. I’m a big fan of myth/fairy tale retellings, but I didn’t like the particular way Penelope’s voice was pulled out of time here to allow her to address and assess modernity and various readings of her story, although I like the idea. It was like some failed writing exercise, and the maids were much worse. Being a chorus meant having to put up with Dr. Seuss-level rhymes, blunt and dull, that I’d hate to hear put to music. Maybe it’s because I expected it to sound a bit more Greek or thought that Penelope at least would not believe in Homer, which is to say that perhaps I wanted it to be what I would make it if I wrote such a thing, but I found the whole thing (with the exception of a few sentences, one of them right out of The Odyssey) more frustrating and vapidly annoying than inspiring or entertaining.

Embarrassing content added here:
Eleven on Top, Janet Evanovich
I read the Stephanie Plum series because my parents do and my partner at work does, so it allows me to take part in conversations about how trashy the books are and how there are sometimes funny lines. That’s all true, but getting through this one took effort without much payoff and I think it will be the end of the line for me. At least I have plenty of informants who will let me know if the quality picks up in later books. At this point, there’s enough exposition that I won’t be missing much even if I do skip a few installments; I’m still not totally sure I read the tenth book or whether maybe I just read the dust jacket, but it’s not the kind of story where that makes a lot of difference, and that’s just the kind of story people who want to read it will want.


  1. David Golding says:

    Make sure you check out Tehanu, the last Earthsea novel, in which Tehar returns. It’s pitched at a level closer to Left Hand of Darkness than Wizard of Earthsea. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

    Disclaimer: I haven’t read the second or third books, as these fell foul of my policy of not reading sequels. Tehanu escaped this policy because it was written so long after the others.

    Speaking of which, would you recommend The Magician’s Nephew to someone who a) enjoyed the Lion, Witch, Wardrobe cartoon as a child, b) enjoyed the BBC Narnia series as a teenager, c) enjoyed LWW in uni, d) never read the others, and, e) was bored by the movie? I understand it somewhat stands apart.

    — 31 January 2006 at 11:58 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    I’ll definitely be reading Tehanu, which wasn’t available at the library. I have a pitifully large stack of Ursula Le Guin books after my visit there, including another Earthsea one and one about the Ekumen, and I’m looking forward to working my way through them.

    I wouldn’t especially recommend The Magician’s Nephew because I think it’s the dullest of the Narnia books and should have been a short story or something at the most. If you want to know the origins and purposes of the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, this is where you get them. I don’t know why it doesn’t sit better with me, but it gives me a real who cares? feeling. Other people like it lots. But then again, it’s not exactly committing to War and Peace, and if it turns out you don’t like it, it’s at most a few hours of your life you won’t get back. And if you do, you can come back and berate me for missing all the beauty in the world. I’d say go for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is I think is most different in terms of tone and setting. Lucy, Edmund, and their little-beloved cousin Eustace drop back into Narnia onto a ship that’s headed toward the end of the world, with lots of little stops along the way. It’s the only Narnia book with no time spent in Narnia proper (although I might be lying since most of The Horse and His Boy takes place in neighboring countries, yet I think the Pevensies do go back to Narnia at some point, and I’m sure the horses do) and I think it benefits from that since there’s no expanding on things that are already known.

    I do, however, recommend both The Farthest Shore and especially The Tombs of Atuan, because while Ged is a major character in both, each individual book has at most faint references to previous installments. It’s really more like just stories in a shared universe even though a protagonist does cross over between books. If you’ve read much Neal Stephenson, it’s a bit like having Enoch Root show up periodically without the rest of the centuries of entwined drama; as long as it works in the story, it’s not obtrusive.

    — 1 February 2006 at 12:39 am (Permalink)