Drat. Finished re-reading Drums of Autumn almost a whole week before the next Diana Gabaldon book is going to arrive. Let's see, ships on Tuesday, at least a couple of days in transit, but even if it got here before Friday I couldn't read it, because I have this minor matter of a bar exam to take then (the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam; much shorter than the actual bar, but still have to pass it to practice). Hmph.
Oh well. I should have realized that since I've re-read Drums the most recently of the Outlander series, it would go faster even though I've been insanely busy. It's hard to speak of "favorites" in a series that's an ongoing story (easier where the books are separate stories about the same people, like Bujold's fabulous Vorkosigan books), but I think you can say which are better done, at least. Drums, like the prior book, Voyager, does reasonably well at not having cliffhangers—unlike the prior two, which is why, while I'm twitching over the release of The Fiery Cross, I managed to restrain myself enough to go for the deep discount at Amazon rather than the instant gratification of walking into the local chain (besides which, I don't like the local chain, and don't trust them to get it on the shelves on time. I miss having a Borders nearby.). The books still aren't self-contained in any meaningful sense, but I find them more satisfying to read when the story is rounded-off, I suppose, coming around to the beginning but leaving the characters at a natural break in their relationships. Also, the minor verbal tics that bothered me in Outlander have gone away, and the varied narrative voices are done quite well. (And did I mention that I really like John Grey?)
Anyway, I will just have to troll Gabaldon's website looking for excerpts I might have somehow missed to tide me over until the new book arrives . . .
I got Anne McCaffrey's The Skies of Pern out of the library because, while I no longer like the books enough to buy them, I'm still vaguely interested in what's going on with the world. I mean, I read (counts on fingers) about ten of the things all in a row when I was younger, and while a lot of the content now bothers me, I still feel some attachment to the world.
Alas, this latest book suggests that I shouldn't bother reading them anymore, I should just find spoilers somewhere. The prose and the tell-don't-show characters combined to leave me completely unengaged in the story, and the plot is very oddly paced. Also, I really don't believe that in the hundreds of years since dragons have existed on Pern, a situation similar to the one in the book hasn't come up.
Anyway. I got it out of the library, so I shall not regret the time spent; I just won't read books about new events on Pern, as well as old ones (I skipped The Masterharper of Pern because how many times can one really read about the same events?).
Took the MPRE today, so needed something small to bring along. Georgette Heyer's Arabella seemed to fit the bill just fine; lightweight in both senses of the word, just the thing for a possibly-stressful day. (Turns it out wasn't, though knock on wood.) This burbled along in typical amusing Heyer fashion for most of it, but upon reflection I rather think the male protagonist was a bit of a jerk at the end. It wasn't anywhere near as annoying as The Toll-Gate, though.
I've also been reading in piecemeal fashion The Outlandish Companion, by Diana Gabaldon. As the title suggests, this is a companion to her Outlander series, published (oddly) before the series was over. I didn't buy it when it first came out, but most fortuitously found it used a few days ago. It has some interesting things, like why characters are mushrooms, onions, or hard nuts, a character list, and frequently asked questions, and some less-interesting things (astrology characters for the two main characters?). There are also synopses of the then-existing books, though I didn't read those because, well, I just did. It would probably be interesting to see what the author thought the main points were, though.
Anyway, I didn't read every word of this, but it did well for dipping into. It also contains something called the "Methadone List," books that might scratch some of the same itches raised by the series. I'm a little dubious about some of the titles in it, but that's fine because I used the book itself as my methadone—and, joy of joys, I have The Fiery Cross, book five, sitting in front of me right now. So, I've got my fix, and don't expect to hear from me for however long it takes me to read all 979 pages of it . . .
Read The Fiery Cross last night; yes, all of it; no, I don't remember what time I went to sleep.
I suppose I should explain about my reading habits. For me, What Happens Next can be a worse addiction than that of chocolate (which I have been craving fiercely all semester, now that I've been trying not to keep it on hand. But anyway.). Mostly I experience this with long-awaited continuations of a story, as with this book, though it also happens if I fall headlong into a new story. So the first read tends to be very fast (how fast? Well, I generally read, very roughly, about a hundred pages an hour—and I know it wasn't that late when I went to bed).
So that's the first craving assuaged, when I know what's happened. (Does Bonnet come back, how's Ian, what happens with the Regulators? Etc.) But some details are obviously a bit blurry around the edges, and the book isn't properly settled yet. That is, events within the book haven't necessarily found their place in relation to each other, the structure, or subtler themes; and the book as a whole might not have settled—when I assess works, I tend to think of them as though they were arranged in spatial relationships to one another inside my skull, and the book might not have found its place in that array yet. Which means I put the book down, take a deep breath (or get some sleep), and start re-reading immediately.
Is this efficient? Probably not. Can I help it? Well, I don't know. I was realizing, while reading The Fiery Cross, that I do regret my lack of willpower. Not so much gulping it down; in a way, I kind of like getting both the roller-coaster ride and the slow unfolding. But there are a bunch of excerpts on Gabaldon's website from this and other forthcoming books, and while I tried to make myself actually read them when I came across them in the book, it was sort of a weird experience. (I do find it interesting to note small changes in the texts along the way; no, I don't compare line-by-line, but I have a good memory for text. Also, just whether the excerpts make it into the book is interesting; one from the web page and one from the Outlandish Companion don't.) It was as though I knew part of the framework of the book, and was seeing the flesh put on it. (Like "The Parliament of Rooks" issue in Sandman, though I don't find this disturbing in the way actual flesh would be.) The excerpts makes it harder for me to take the book as a whole on the first read, but I don't know if I could stop myself from reading them. And maybe it's not such a big deal, when I re-read as much as I do.
(Something similar happens when first chapters get put up. For instance, I started reading Lois McMaster Bujold's latest novel, The Curse of Chalion, from where the sample chapters left off. I remembered them quite well, but on reflection I think that it would have been better to read the book as a whole the first time, because the plot's so tightly structured.)
I realize I haven't said much about the actual book. Well, I will re-read it, slowly, over meals and before bed, and hopefully I will have more useful things to say about it then. Now? Let's see. Book five of six is a rotten place to start reading a series, in case anyone of you out there were tempted (start with Outlander). In another way, this is book two of three; the series is split into an Old World trilogy (in which the pivotal event was the Scottish Rising of 1745) and a New World trilogy (in which the pivotal event will be the American Revolution). The Revolution hasn't started yet, but the stirrings are starting to affect our characters already—and leftover business from the '45 keeps showing up, and not just the Scottish immigrants' attitude toward the English crown. Speaking generally, the books are about time, history, and change on the one hand, and marriage and love on the other; Gabaldon's observation of each is still acute. And, well, it's seriously compulsive and entertaining reading; I was up way past my bedtime. What else do I need to say?
I did something fairly rare last night: I gave up on a book. I got George MacDonald's collection The Gray Wolf on a whim, because it was only two dollars and the title story was fairly well done, and because I've been reading more collections these days to keep from being sucked into a long story at bedtime. I should have paid more attention to the blurb on the back extolling C.S. Lewis's admiration of MacDonald; I am not a religious person and do not particularly warm to religious stories (religious characters being a different matter). However, the title story was indisputably fantasy and not overtly religious, so I said why not.
Well, while I haven't read all of the stories in the collection, I wouldn't be surprised if I picked the only one that was both actually a fantasy and not overtly religious. Anyway, I tried one more story after reading this passage, but really I should have just stopped there:
And may it not be believed of many human beings, that, the great Husbandman having sown them like seeds in the soil of human affairs, there they lie buried a life long; and only after the upturning of the soil by death, reach a position in which the awakening of their aspiration and the consequent growth become possible. Surely He has made nothing in vain.
Suffice it to say that when the story's omniscient narrative voice [*] is espousing a worldview so contrary to my own, I just can't enjoy the story.
[*] Habits of precision compel me to describe it this way, though I imagine it's probably safe, under the circumstances, to assume that it's simply the author's voice.
Well, I'm not going to finish my re-read of The Fiery Cross before I have to take a train tomorrow (or later today, now), which is a pity because I'm not taking it with me and I'll have lost the flow by the time I get back. Also, this will extend the time I'm tempted to make Scottish throat-clearing noises in response to everything:
"I hope Roger's managed all right," I said, leaning back against Jamie's chest with a small sigh.
"Mmphm." From long experience, I diagnosed this particular catarrhal noise as indicating a polite general agreement with my sentiment, this overlying complete personal indifference to the actuality. Either he saw no reason for concern, or he thought Roger could sink or swim.
"I hope he's found an inn of sorts," I offered, thinking this prospect might meet with a trifle more enthusiasm. "Hot food and a clean bed would be lovely."
"Mmphm." That one held a touch of humor, mingled with an inborn skepticism—fostered by long experience—regarding the possible existence of such items as hot food and clean beds in the Carolina backcountry.
"The goats seem to be going along very well," I offered, and waited in anticipation.
"Mmphm." Grudging agreement, mingled with a deep suspicion as to the continuance of good behavior on the part of the goats.
I was carefully formulating another observation, in hopes of getting him to do it again—three times was the record so far—when [the plot started happening again].
Like six gazillion other people, I saw the movie version of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (yes, here it's the Sorceror's Stone, but I refuse to participate in the dumbing-down of books) earlier this week, and decided to re-read the book after.
The book, unsurprisingly, is better. Most of the movie's flaws come from picking the wrong bits of the book to be faithful to, such that lots of useful information gets shoved aside by the parade of individual events that are crammed in. However, the movie also tries to make some of the events more visual, and in doing so makes them make much less sensible (the wand-buying and the chess game are cases in point). Someone else observed that the movie seemed to have been written only for people who had already read the book, which I think is a fair description of the effect, if not necessarily the motivation.
The characters are all cast brilliantly, but their appearances, as fitting as they are, haven't really displaced my mental images on re-reading the book. Indeed, I prefer my mental image of Dumbledore—though not because the actor does a bad job, but because the script takes all the whimsy out of the role, turning him into a Gandalf clone.
The main problem with the movie is less a problem with the book: the plot is fairly lumpy, with the major drama mostly relegated to the very end. In the book, the charms of discovering the world and learning about Hogwarts help carry the reader past this, as does the knowledge that this is a setup book. I think a movie needs to be more evenly paced, though, and stand better alone. Anyway, the book (and the series as a whole) is charming, though not so good that I re-read it without an outside motivation, like this movie or the release of another book.
Finished Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld book, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, yesterday. This is a putative Young Adult novel; you can tell Pratchett's YAs from his adult novels because 1) the YAs are a bit shorter; 2) they have chapters; and 3) they are at least as dark as any of the adult novels (and much darker than most).
The rodents of the title aren't actually Educated, though they're getting there; they're rats that ate something off the dump behind the wizards' university and became sentient. Maurice, a cat, was also Changed. Together with a stupid-looking kid who plays the pipes, they've been running a Pied Piper scam; the rats have discovered ethical scruples, though, and plan to make the next town their last. This town apparently has a real rat problem, and with the dubious help of the mayor's daughter (a perfectly horrible girl convinced everything is a story), they soon discover that something is quite wrong.
The story feels very dark, even though it's on a much smaller scale than the end of the world (which happens practically every other book on the Discworld). Part of the reason is that the rats are struggling throughout with building a civilization from scratch, with all the attendant questions of ethics, morality, and religion that the newly-intelligent must confront. The scale might be small, but the stakes are both high and very relevant to human concerns.
The problem I have with the book, though, is that a key element isn't explained and doesn't seem to comply with the Discworld's general rules and logic. (The Discworld is undoubtedly a daft place, but given its premises, the results do follow.) I can think of a couple of half-assed ways in which this element might have come about, but they're just that, half-assed—and what's more, I don't think I should have to come up with my own explanation of something so central to the story. Which is definitely a pity and not at all what I'm used to in a Pratchett story.
When I was leaving for Thanksgiving break, I wanted to bring along a nice long dense paperback, so I got Dorothy Sayer's Gaudy Night from the library. The cover of the most recent U.S. paperback calls it "A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, with Harriet Vane," but really (and unlike the other Wimsey-Vane stories) it ought to be the other way 'round. This is very much Harriet's book, both in plot and theme.
The plot centers around a nasty campaign of vandalism and poison pen letters at Harriet's old Oxford college, the fictional Shrewsbury. Harriet experiences the start of the Poison-Pen's campaign when she goes back for a Gaudy (which appears to be something like Homecoming or Alumni weekend in American terms). When the administration discovers the problem, they ask Harriet to quietly investigate, which she does alone for most of the book (Peter is present a distinct minority of the time). It's hard to say how mysterious the mystery is, because I've read this before—all I remembered was the solution, so whodunnit was blindingly obvious to me the first time the person appeared. However, the puzzle in this book is at least as important for its effect on the characters as for the sake of being a puzzle itself.
It is also tightly integrated with the themes of the book, love, intellect, and independence. Harriet, who has excellent reasons for fearing a relationship with Peter, learns rather a lot about herself, him, and themselves over the course of the book, so that she finally (after a five-year courtship) agrees to marry Peter. Their relationship is painted with exquisite detail and sense, and while I'm not sure it had to take five years, it certainly had to take a while.
I finished the book, though, and realized it made me feel vaguely uneasy. After thinking about it for a bit, I pinned it down. It is entirely understandable that Harriet should fear marriage and see it as a loss of her autonomy and intellectual life, given her past history. But practically everyone else in the book sees marriage the same way, and (it seemed at the time) spends rather a lot of time pondering the question of
Could there ever be any alliance between the intellect and the flesh? It was this business of asking questions and analysing everything that sterilised and stultified all one's passions. Experience, perhaps, had a formula to get over this difficulty; one kept the bitter, tormenting brain on one side of the wall and the languorous sweet body on the other, and never let them meet. So that if you were made that way you could argue about loyalties in an Oxford common-room and refresh yourself elsewhere with—say—Viennese singers, presenting an unruffled surface on both sides of yourself. Easy for a man, and possible even for a woman, if one avoided foolish accidents like being tried for murder [as Harriet had been]. But to seek to force incompatibles into a compromise was madness; one should neither do it nor be a party to it. . . . Let the male animal take the female animal and be content; the busy brain could very well be "left talking" . . . . In a long monologue, of course; for the female animal could only listen without contributing. Otherwise one would get the sort of couple . . . who rolled on the floor and hammered one another when they weren't making love, because they (obviously) had no conventional resources. A vista of crashing boredom, either way.
Granted, Harriet was a bit overwrought when she thought that, but the theme bothered me; I eventually decided that it made me wonder if I was shallow or thoughtless not to have agonized at length on the question, when all those intellectual and thoughtful women in the book had done so. (An entirely idiosyncratic reaction, to be sure.) Now that the question's presented, though, I don't think I am; instead, I'm lucky in at least two ways. I live in a time and a place where it is accepted that a woman's independent existence need not be, and is usually not, extinguished upon marriage (Gaudy Night was written and set in the mid-1930s); and I have had no personal experiences to contradict my instinctive belief that of course one can have intellect and passion all together with the same person. Late in the book, the reader is told that Harriet "went to bed thinking more about another person than about herself. This goes to prove that even minor poetry may have its practical uses." Novels too may have their practical uses, spurring realizations about ourselves and others.
I now want to re-read the start of Peter & Harriet's story, Strong Poison, and the end, Busman's Honeymoon, and since I got both of them from the library today (my copies being elsewhere presently), I shall. The Fiery Cross can wait a bit more, I think. But then I might want to re-read Possession (though probably not Tam Lin) . . . hmmm. Decisions, decisions.
Though the past couple of days have been quite busy, Strong Poison is quite short. This is the first Wimsey-Vane book; Harriet Vane is a mystery novelist on trial for poisoning her former lover—doubly scandalous in 1930. Peter Wimsey has fallen in love at first sight, and, when the jury deadlocks, determines to solve the case and prove her innocent.
Of course Harriet, being in prison, doesn't get much screen time, though some of her personality comes through. But the real surprise in re-reading this is Peter, who is barely recognizable as the same person from Gaudy Night. Consider this passage, when Peter goes to propose both marriage and assistance to Harriet (in their first conversation):
"Oh, by the way—I don't positively repel you or anything like that, do I? Because, if I do, I'll take my name off the waiting-list at once."
"No," said Harriet Vane, kindly and a little sadly. "No, you don't repel me."
"I don't remind you of white slugs or make you go gooseflesh all over?"
"I'm glad of that. Any minor alterations, like parting the old mane, or growing a tooth-brush, or cashiering the eye-glass, you know, I should be happy to undertake, if it suited your ideas."
"Don't," said Miss Vane, "please don't alter yourself in any particular."
"You really mean that?" Wimsey flushed a little. "I hope it doesn't mean that nothing I could do would make me even passable. . . . You—er—you'll think it over, won't you, if you have a minute to spare. There's no hurry. Only don't hesitate to say if you think you couldn't stick it at any price. I'm not trying to blackmail you into matrimony, you know. I mean, I should investigate this for the fun of the thing, whatever happened, you see. . . . Well, cheer-frightfully-ho and all that. And I'll call again, if I may."
"I will give the footman orders to admit you," said the prisoner, gravely; "you will always find me at home."
I mean, it's almost Miles Vorkosigian in full sexual panic mode, but with an English accent. (You might miss the full effect because I cut out some of the babbling, but the quote was feeling too long. [We take a very scientific approach to posting here at Outside of a Dog.])
Compare that to this passage from Gaudy Night, where Peter and Harriet meet on the street and decide to go for a drive to discuss the latest happenings in the Poison-Pen mystery:
"We'll dawdle along the lanes and have tea somewhere," he added, conventionally, as he handed her in.
"How original of you, Peter!"
"Isn't it?" They moved decorously down the crowded High Street. "There's something hypnotic about the word tea. I am asking you to enjoy the beauties of the English countryside, to tell me your adventures and hear mine, to plan a campaign involving the comfort and reputation of two hundred people, to honour me with your sole presence and bestow upon me the illusion of Paradise—and I speak as though the pre-eminent object of all desire were a pot of boiled water and a plateful of synthetic pastries in Ye Olde Worlde Tudor Tea-Shoppe."
Obviously someone easily intoxicated by words, but still capable of coherence—and I didn't even pick one of the more emotionally charged conversations, feeling obscurely that it would be unfair, the difference being so great.
I like the Peter of Gaudy Night far better.