Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Magicians

by Lev Grossman

Well, I have another childhood disappointment to add to my list: I'm too old to get my acceptance letter to Hogwarts, to find Narnia in a wardrobe, and to take my Brakebills entrance exam. (Or maybe I took it an failed an had my memory altered. . .But that would be worse.)

Initially I wanted all the characters to stop talking about Fillory and just say Narnia. Fillory is so obviously molded after Narnia. It annoys me when novels reference other books that don't exist. But I'm sure Grossman couldn't get the ok to write about Narnia; that wouldn't surprise me. And as I continued to read, I realized it would have been too difficult to integrate Narnia into what he was doing. And why am I so against a new magical land? That's not fair. I didn't feel that way when reading about Narnia or Hogwarts for the first time.

What I do take issue with, though, is the magic. It's too vague. I feel like I could cast Hogwarts spells, but Brakebills magic is more complicated, but not clearly explained. The spells are in ancient languages and require fancy finger play, none of which I could hope to recreate. (For clarification: I'm not actually trying to be a magician, but I would like to have a clear picture in my mind of what they're learning at Brakebills academy.) I felt a little too shut out from this world to inhabit it along with Quentin and his cohort.

And along those lines, I feel like I understand how Quiddich is played, and if I had to, I could sub-in for a beater, but I have no idea how Welters is played. There are two huge tournaments of Welters in the book, but no one seems to actually care about it: the students, the faculty, Dean Fogg, or Grossman.

I think this obscure quality of the book is due, in part, to how fast the book moves. It spans Quentin's four years at Brakebills plus a year or so beyond. There's a lot that Grossman doesn't bother to describe; he rushes Quentin's education a little too much, I think. Quentin's semester at Brakebills South, however, is one of my favorite parts of the book. And, of course, the class's way of getting there (I really don't want to give too much away). Grossman speeds through Brakebills, though, because he wants to get Quentin and his friends out of the safety of the school and out into the real world. . .or worlds.

This book has its flaws: the speed, the occasional pretentious language and metaphors (why say a difficult passage of Bartok rather than a difficult passage of music?), the indeterminate magic. But there is still a lot to like about this novel. I found myself getting angry with Quentin and Elliot and Janet a lot -- Seriously? You're magicians. Stop throwing your lives away! Grossman's novel, in comparison to The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter is a better mix of real-world teenage angst and real-world magic. Grossman's magic is more dangerous, more difficult, and has clearer serious consequences. This book builds as it goes on, and gets better as Quentin progresses through Brakebills and after graduation. Grossman took on a lot in this first book, and I'm looking forward to see what he does next. My enjoyment of The Magicians far outweighed any of my frustrations. I had to go out and buy the second book as soon as I finished The Magicians. In the end, I'm more than happy to immerse myself in the world of Fillory.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Blue Plate Special

by Kate Christensen

Kate Christensen is my soul sister. Reading Blue Plate Special is like commiserating with a literary soul mate over several glasses of good wine. She loves food, I love food. She loves New England, I love New England. She loves reading and writing, I love reading and writing. She's gluten intolerant, I'm gluten intolerant. She's a writer, I want to be a writer. Christensen has shot to the top of my list of Writers Who, If I Ever Met, I Would Freak Out and Embarrass Myself (other writers include Cheryl Strayed and Colum McCann).

Christensen's writing is as warm and inviting as the smell of fresh-baked bread. I was hooked from the introduction: "To taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to the complexities and truths--good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in." I've never lived out West. I've never been a nanny in France. And I don't know what a Waldorf School is. But I really connected with this book. Her experiences are vastly different from mine, but at the core, she is open and relatable.

Christensen's memoir is about figuring it out. And as someone who is deeply intrenched in trying to figure it out, I really appreciate Christensen's vignettes of family, growing up, love, loss, and food. I enjoy reading about someone else's struggle, experiencing their process of understanding themselves and where they fit in the world. Christensen is generous with her writing and doesn't shy away from what was difficult or uncomfortable in her life. Sometimes she is the villain of her story, sometimes the hero, sometimes a supporting character.

The pacing of this book is excellent. It's composed of relatively short vignettes of her life. She doesn't get overly sentimental, or wallow in self-pity; she is measured yet honest. She allows readers to share in her triumphs and missteps, and a lot of food stories and recipes a long the way. I haven't read any of Christensen's novels, but now plan to. And if you haven't read Blue Plate Special, you definitely should. When the weather turns cold and dark, what's better than curling up with a great food writing/memoir?