Stardust

“Adventures are all very well in their place, but there’s a lot to be said for regular meals and freedom from pain.” (Stardust by Neil Gaiman)

Stardust CoverMy recent move across the country, into a city with a big car-culture, has meant that I’ve been driving more than I ever thought I would. However, the problem has been much ameliorated by the fact that the library I am fortunate enough to work at has an outstanding audiobook collection. After several failed attempts, I have found that I distinctly prefer audiobook performers to be male and to have an English accent. If they narrate their own works, even better. This makes Neil Gaiman pretty much the perfect author for me to listen to; fortunately, he is rather prolific. Although I don’t expect to love any of his works as much as I love The Graveyard Book, I look forward to many happy hours listening to his lovely, slow voice.

Stardust was just what Neil Gaiman set out to create: a fairy tale for adults. As do fairy tales for children, Neil focuses on the story over character development. This is not to say that the characters are uninteresting, but rather that this is simply an excellent story. As with other modern fairy tales for adults, like The Princess Bride, it has everything one could want from a story: love, an evil witch, a satisfyingly romantic ending, adventure, and magic. To make it distinct from the children’s variety, it even has a steamy sex scene, some well-chosen language, and an imperfect love interest. This is not a must-read, but if you ever stumble across it and find yourself facing a long drive, pick it up and prepare yourself for an utterly satisfying afternoon.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR Avoid

Length: 6 hours, 27 minutes (Audiobook Quality: Good)

Ending: Satisfying as only a fairy tale can be

Recommended Further Reading: Fairy tales for Adults are few and far between, The Princess Bride being a notable exception.  If you really like the concept of a fairy tale, you could go back to classic ones like the Grimm Brother’s or Italian Folk Tales by Italo Calvino (my personal favorite).

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Anne of Green Gables

“‘Yes; but cakes have such a terrible habit of turning out bad just when you especially want them to be good,’ sighed Anne, setting out a particularly well-balsamed twig afloat. ‘However, I suppose I shall just have to trust to Providence and be careful to put in the flour. Oh, look, Diana, what a lovely rainbow! Do you suppose the dryad will come out after we go away and take it for a scarf?'” (Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery)

Anne of Green Gables CoverHow could I have spent 20 some years of a reading life and missed Anne of Green Gables? Whenever I read something that really blows me away, I always have two reactions simultaneously: first, a reaffirmation that spending so much time looking for the perfect book is a life well-spent and secondly, a nagging concern about not having found that book earlier. If I had read Anne as an overly imaginative child, would I have been happier, more serene about the future? It is possible.

I had been saving the last few chapters of Anne for a time when I needed her, but my reading economy turned out to be futile when I learned that Anne of Green Gables is not only a series, but that the rest of the books show Anne as she grows up and gets married. Why did literature stop popularizing such a wonderful practice? I can name three girl’s series written between 1900 and 1950 that follow the majority of the lives of their characters off the top of my head (Anne, Betsy Tacy, and Patty Fairfield) but none more recently. The idea of following a young character for such a long time seems equally lovely whether the audience is a child or adult. The children would satiate their curiosity about adult life, while the grown-ups could be reminded of their childhood selves. I suppose that the stumbling block must be the modern publishing industry, because how would one classify and advertise a series spanning decades nowadays? We have enough trouble with Harry Potter.

If you, like me, have somehow missed Anne over the course of your life, you must take it upon yourself to remedy this error immediately. If you have nothing to do with the rest of your day, or even if you have plenty to do, your course is clear: you must spend it dreaming of Green Gables.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 351

Ending: utterly satisfying

Further Reading: As I said before, Patty Fairfield by Carolyn Wells and Betsy Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace share certain characteristics, but each have their own distinct voice.

The Summer Book

“I’ll never get anywhere with this book,’ said Sophia angrily. ‘How can I think if I have to worry about spelling all the time? I lose my place, and the whole thing’s a mess!’ (The Summer Book, Tove Jansson)

Although the title of this book may look out of place, it is actually rather appropriate for this time of year. Here in Boston we just had our last bought of beautiful weather, the golden leaves have almost fallen down entirely, and a real chill is just on the horizon. This extreme turning of the seasons is the end of summer for Sophia and her Grandmother, the time where they pack up their belongings and move into town. To them, summer does not end until winter is almost ready to begin.

The Summer Book is lovely, soft and simple, and it focuses on natural changes and the relationship between the young and the old. Tove Jansson is famous for writing the Moomin children’s book series, and while this book contains a similar light feeling, it substitutes the adventure of the moomins with a super-realism of sorts. I enjoyed this book, but I wouldn’t necessarily put it on a must-read list. If you’re a big reader and want something with a slower pace than most adult literature, it would be good enjoyed at a secluded cabin, or at least in a very deep armchair.

Beverage: Some dark, deep tea, like a lapsang Souchong, would fit well here.

 

The Little Prince

“That’s right,’ the Fox said. ‘For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…” (The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Once I tried to read The Little Prince to a class of second graders. They fidgeted, fussed, and generally let their minds wander, for the words and structure of the book were far beyond their listening level. “But if The Little Prince is not meant for children,” I asked myself, “who is it meant for”? This question resurfaced recently when I found that a book distributor recommended Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s work for teenagers. This assessment, although consistent with the reading level, seems equally unsatisfying. If you know a fourteen year old who wouldn’t balk at reading a short book with a young main character, I would like to meet them.

So I decided to listen to the book on tape, and for the first time ever heard the dedication to Leon Werth:

I ask children to forgive me for dedicating this book to a grown-up.
I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand anything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs to be comforted. If all these excuses are not enough, then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it.) So I correct my dedication: To Leon Werth, when he was a little boy.

If this dedication does not make the intended age clear, I don’t know what does. This is not a book for children, it is not a book for teenagers: it is a book for the child whom each grown-up once was. The lessons within the book are also for adults – children don’t need to remember to see with the heart instead of the eyes, they already know.

Beverage: Walk very slowly towards a drinking fountain… then slowly sip your ice-cold water on a hot day.

Reminds me… of nothing else, this book is one-of-a-kind.

The Uncommon Reader

“’Books are wonderful, aren’t they?’ she said to the vice-chancellor, who concurred.
‘At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderize one.’” (The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennet)

One of my criteria for a good book is that it be ‘special’. Now, even if pressed, I don’t think that I could accurately define what it is that I mean by ‘special’, but I know it when I read it. It only takes thirty or so pages for me to declare a book to possess whatever these mysterious features are and, if the novel does not have them, or anything else to recommend it, I promptly put it down*. The Uncommon Reader can bear the weight of this title: It is something about Alan Bennett’s voice – it’s dry, witty, human and yet detached.

I always love a good book about reading because any random sentence both validates one’s current activity and prompts a sufficient amount of self-analysis. The ending of the The Uncommon Reader, however, seems to indicate that the purpose of reading is eventually to write, and of this I am not convinced. It seems to me as though the Queen simply loses her gumption and decides that writing would be more acceptable than reading. This, in itself, is an interesting question worth pondering over: Is writing more acceptable than reading? Yet, the final question goes more along these lines: Is writing a superior form of reading?

Unfortunately, another feeling besides satisfaction sounded clearly inside me upon finishing this delightful book: disappointment. What I want to read more than anything right now is the book that Alan Bennett says Queen Elizabeth will soon write. But that book doesn’t exist! I find myself in quite a pickle because I’ve never before wanted to read an imaginary book so ardently. For Bennett to describe a promised book in such vivid terms, without having the book actually written, is too cruel.

* Many a book has been thus discarded, and perhaps I shall eventually post about those preeminently disappointing among them.

Beverage: Some ice cold black tea does quite well here, especially during the Queens 80th birthday speech.

Reminds me… of Montaigne’s On Cannibals, another excellent essay about reading, although this one is slightly disguised.

The Warden

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.” – Anthony Trollope

Trollope writes The Warden with such clarity of thought and imagination that he makes the most complex issues and characters seem simple and unassuming. Since I learned about Trollope as a writer around the same time I read The Warden, it is hard for me to separate what I know of the man from his work. Whenever he took it upon himself to write a book, he kept a separate journal to keep track of his word count each day. That way, if he skipped a day, he would have that zero mark to goad him into working more. He also honed his imagination as a child by setting the perimeters of a situation or world for himself and then playing out the scene or story. This combination of extreme talent and work ethic is absolutely embedded in The Warden; it is almost a relief to read after a more modern, purely inspired, work, as every single sentence is perfectly balanced and crafted, and yet the overarching plot and characters are surprising, moving and intricate.

Reminds me… of Jane Austen in that each of their works are so symmetrical, and their carefully laid out sentences simply roll off the tongue. Each of their voices, although distinct from each other, have a certain consistent, and extremely pleasing, rhythm to them.

Beverage: Always a sucker for what the characters are drinking, I would say a strong English Breakfast and cream would do well here, served with a traditional British tea service if at all possible. I think that the Warden also shares some port with his wards, if you’re more inclined to that.