Monday, May 14, 2012

weekend reading and general snobbery

Over the weekend I finished Auraria, by Tim Westover, my Early Reviewers book. It was tough going. Our protagonist, James Holtzclaw, journeys to a town in Georgia in the (I think) nineteenth century to buy the land up from all the townsfolk so his boss can build a dam and a pleasure resort. He discovers that Auraria is intensely magical, although the magic doesn't follow any consistent rules or form a coherent mythos. One ghost is invisible and only called "Mr. Bad Thing"; one ghost takes corporeal form and retains his mortal identity; maidens descend from the moon to bathe in the streams (and are described as looking exactly like the creatures in "Avatar"); there's a sort of Grecian nymph living on earth who serves the maidens and also the earth itself... and that's barely the tip of the iceberg. Anything Westover could think of, in it goes. This is one of the most cluttered books I've ever encountered.

The story lost me sooner rather than later because Holtzclaw accepts all of this, immediately, no matter whether it be the sky raining peaches or meeting a headless man at the crossroads. That made so little sense, and Holtzclaw is so lacking in personality, that it all became just a list of Magical Things, one after another. And it goes on and on and on. The book's in three parts: the first is Holtzclaw buying up the land, the second is the building of the dam, the third is the story of the pleasure resort. But each part is just the paper on which the list of Magical Things is written, and I was sick of that list halfway through the first part. I finished the book, but it was a major slog and I did not enjoy it.  

Trivia fact: Westover is an award-winning author... in Esperanto. No, I don't know what to do with that either.

After that, disgruntled, I picked up All the Colors of Darkness, by Peter Robinson, hoping that it would make up for the previous, irritating entry in the Alan Banks series. It did, and with the exception of one issue which I address below, it was most satisfying. The mystery is engrossing and full of red herrings (and the ending is left ambiguous); the characters are realistic; no one gets needlessly shamed. Perfect Sunday afternoon reading.

The issue? Well, I am well aware that I am a miserable snob when it comes to the particular classics that shaped my early life. I can be talking to someone who I know, for a fact, is smarter than I, but if it comes up that they don't know who Uriah Heep is, part of my brain is going to think, Are you still in contact with your wolf mother? Which is ridiculous. Plenty of very well-read, intelligent people simply have not followed the same literary path I have. Plenty of them might reasonably think wolf-related thoughts of me when they find I haven't read Proust, or China MiĆ©ville, or whichever authors shaped their early lives. Despite what my solipsism wants to believe, it's not all Dickens and Shakespeare, for everyone.

And yet. And yet. Please tell me - I hear my grandfather speaking through me from the grave here - please tell me that we have not reached the point of being unable to assume that readers know the plot of Othello. I can't stand to believe that we are so lost as all that. But Peter Robinson believes it, and so when he writes a book featuring the plot of Othello as a major reference, we get something ugly.

You all know my annoyance with this by now, surely. You know that when suddenly otherwise well-read characters (one of them an English major, no less!) are saying, "No, I haven't read Othello since high school, and I have forgotten everything about it including the villain's name, why don't you give me the Cliffs Notes right here," I start frothing. We're not talking King John or Pericles here, for pity's sake! Spare me! And the four-page infodump from the English-major character (who nonetheless needed a plot refresher, ARGH) on how the play is really about the power of language and persuasion... YOU DON'T SAY. Please, Robinson, get your Jasper Fforde on and tell me more!

Grrr. Anyway, I know that this brings out the worst in me. ("What do you mean, there are people who haven't already studied Othello's subtext to death in liberal-arts-college honors seminars? What wretched peasants.") But if Robinson felt compelled to handle it this way, he could have done a less clumsy job of it. Say, have one character not know the literary reference, as opposed to all of them; and get the subtext part across through a scene in which two intelligent people who have just seen the play discuss the staging chosen for that performance, as opposed to the scene he wrote, in which one of those intelligent people lectures the other like he's never heard of Shakespeare, even though they have just come from said performance. The awkwardness of it all was what really got me.

On a happier note, I have started Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, and I cannot put it down. It's much shorter than Wolf Hall (300-some pages as opposed to 600) and feels far less dense. Some of this is due to the fact that most of the main characters have already been introduced, and BUtB is covering a shorter time frame. But I am just whipping through it, to the extent that one can whip through Mantel's language combined with complicated political maneuvering, and loving it madly.


  1. Please, Robinson, get your Jasper Fforde on and tell me more!


    Anyway, I know that this brings out the worst in me. ("What do you mean, there are people who haven't already studied Othello's subtext to death in liberal-arts-college honors seminars? What wretched peasants.")

    Oh Lord, no wonder we are friends. YES. I truly try to squash this side of myself, but LORD, that is bad.


      One could compare and contrast this with Barbara Hambly's Die Upon a Kiss, which is also a mystery featuring a performance of Othello, and which challenges rather than condescends to the reader.