Monday, February 21, 2011

Among Others

Saturday we took our non-necromancy show on the road and entertained ourselves in the city an hour away while Walker played three chess games on the first day of a tournament. He now plays at the "expert" level, which means there's less drama; he knows many of his competitors and more of the games end in a draw. So we left him to it. Eleanor and I got haircuts while Ron sat in a next-door coffeeshop, and then we had a fancy lunch at the restaurant next door on the other side (Eleanor had her favorite, brie and pear pizza). We went to see Gnomeo and Juliet, which was mildly amusing. Walker went out to dinner with us, and then we took him back for the evening game and headed for the place we always go when we've done everything else and need somewhere to hang out: the bookstore. We all found some books and settled in for a while. When the while was over, I discovered that I was totally hooked on the book I'd picked up to see if it was as good as I'd read over at Things Mean A Lot-- Among Others, by Jo Walton. I had to buy it and carry it with me on the long, moonlit road home and wait until the next day after I'd taken Walker back for the second day of the tournament until I could finish reading it.

The first-person narrator of Among Others is a young girl who reads a lot of the kind of poetry and science fiction and fantasy I read when I was her age. Throughout her story, she says what she thinks of this book and that, and--especially because we don't always agree--it's kind of like having a conversation about the kind of most-beloved books that live deepest and longest in your imagination, the kind that have provided you with the metaphors through which you've always seen the world, like thinking that huorns should be coming to help when you've finally had the courage to do the thing that will vanquish evil.

Among Others is, first and foremost, a book about books-- not a genre I often like, because it usually strikes me as somewhat artificial and precious. This book isn't like that, though; it's more like a Victorian children's book in which the children have read a lot of the same books you have and loved them for most of the same reasons. She reads and talks about J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Samuel R. Delany, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Arthur C. Clarke, Roger Zelazny, Plato, Poul Anderson, Mary Renault, C.S. Lewis, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, Zenna Henderson, and Theodore Sturgeon, among others. And if you've read some of the same books she has, you know exactly what she means when she says that sometimes a person she knows "gives me the creeps. Who could help wanting to Impress a dragon in preference? Who wouldn't want to be Paul Atreides?"

At one point when the narrator has to make a choice between life and death, she chooses life simply because "I was halfway through Babel 17, and if I went on I would never find out how it came out."

The book-loving theme is the main attraction of this book, and it has an ending more fulfilling and satisfying than any I could have imagined. There are huorns, finally, and a reference to Burnham Wood, and the narrator says she had tears in her eyes, and I definitely had them in mine. This is the line you want to get to in this book: "If you love books enough, books will love you back." I'm glad I hadn't read Jo Walton's "big idea" post over at Whatever before I read her book, but now that I have, I like what she says about this line.

The other thing this book is about is fairies. Yeah, but don't look at me like that. Again, it's more like a Victorian children's book where the fairies are treated matter-of-factly than the kind of thing you might be imagining. Part of what the book is about is magic. And that's one of the reasons why I'm not mentioning the narrator's name.

Let me try to give you some of the matter-of-fact flavor:
"One of the first questions they asked me was about what kind of car my father has....They couldn't believe I didn't know....It turns out it's a Bentley--I wrote and asked--which is an acceptable kind of car. But why do they care? They want me to be able to place everyone very precisely....
Class is entirely intangible, and the way it affects things isn't subject to scientific analysis, and it's not supposed to be real but it's pervasive and powerful. See; just like magic."

The narrator occasionally wrestles with the necessity for using magic:
"I think I ought to do something about the way the universe is unfolding, because there are things that need obvious and immediate attention, like the fact that the Russians and the Americans could blow the world to bits at any moment, and Dutch elm disease, and famine in Africa..."

And she thinks about the way magic works:
"I wanted the bus to come, and I wasn't exactly sure when it was due. If I reached magic into that, imagined the bus just coming around the corner, it isn't as if I'd be materialising a bus out of nowhere. The bus is somewhere on its round. There are two buses an hour, say, and for the bus to be coming right when I wanted it, it must have started off on its route at a precise time earlier, and people will have caught it and got on and off at particular times, and got to where they're going at different times. For the bus to be where I want it, I'd have to change all that, the times they got up, even, and maybe the whole timetable back to whenever it was written, so that people caught the bus at different times every day for months, so that I didn't have to wait today. Goodness knows what difference that would make in the world, and that's just for a bus."

What I like best about the magic, besides her descriptions of what particular fairies look like, is the way she always wonders about what she's trying to do in the world: "was it all going to happen anyway and I only think the magic did it?"

There are people you meet who fall in step with you, like the friends the narrator meets in town who turn with her towards the bookshop because they're "bibliotropic," Hugh said. "Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop." Reading this book is like meeting friends like that. And the book is about people who know how books can be friends--reading it gave me the pleasure of seeing how this new friend--Walton's narrator-- first met many of my old friends, and the pleasure of adding her story to theirs.

This book is for anyone who loves reading, anyone who claps during a performance of Peter Pan, and anyone who has been a teenager.


FreshHell said...

Is two out of three okay? I've never clapped for Tinkerbell and the story's always ended the same way. :)

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I think the wide-eyed and credulous will enjoy this book more than the bitter and cynical. But I think you can enjoy it, even though it's the clapping of people like me that lets you enjoy the ending of the play.

lemming said...

@ Freshhell - great comment: thanks for the grin.

FreshHell said...

I'm cynical but not bitter. I think. And, I don't think I've ever seen a live production of Peter Pan so the jury's still out on whether I would participate. It's more the participation thing that I pull away from rather than belief or disbelief. I don't clap at movies though I have been known to shed a tear.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, it's only the live performance that counts. What good does it do to clap at a movie?

FreshHell said...

Well, that's why I've never clapped.

Nymeth said...

Wonderful post, Jeanne. And you picked some excellent passages to illustrate your points. I like what you chose not to reveal - I struggled with that when deciding how to write about this book, and then hoped that people would forgive me for being somewhat misleading once they'd read it :P

Christina Tarr said...

Sounds good!

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, I went back and read your post after I'd written this one, and was pleased at how they seemed complementary.

And yeah, just because I don't believe in spoilers doesn't mean that I want to tell anyone the magic is because the rabbit was already in the hat.

One of the things I particularly liked is the description of what it's like to live with a leg that hurts all the time. But I decided not to talk about that, because while it added to the universality for me, I think it might detract for some, and if this book works, it's because you identify with the narrator. Same for the dates--they work for me, but why make a big deal of what the world was like when one was, personally, 15 years old?

Christina, you should definitely read it.

Jenny said...

I'm reading this right now and am so far looooving it. It's very different to what I was expecting, quieter than I thought it would be, but it's fantastic. I can't wait to finish it!

Jeanne said...

Jenny, quiet but full of surprises.