Book Round-up: Narnia, Umberto Eco, and Susanna Clarke
By Karen on Tuesday 1 December 2009, 02:49 - Permalink
It's been a little while- time for some more book talk.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, A Horse and His Boy, and Prince Caspian (by C.S. Lewis, as though you didn't know)
I've been meaning to reread Narnia for years now, and I've finally started digging into my handsome collected edition. I remember inhaling the series as an eight-year old, but other than a few mental images, I can't recall much from the first time I read it, and that's always bothered me. As a kid, I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first, but as Narnia fans know, The Magician's Nephew is actually the first book chronologically; my Harper Collins signature edition presents it as such.
Even though this was Lewis' preferred order, I think it does a bit of a disservice to both books; The Magician's Nephew is slow to start, and lacks the immediate appeal to the imagination and page-turning quality that Lion has. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it does a better job of informing the adventure that you've read after the fact, as opposed to introducing it. With Nephew first, Jadis terrorizes the series for two whole books, only to be killed very suddenly in Lion. Considering that so much of the first book is devoted to chronicling how Jadis became the titular Witch, it was very strange to see her dispatched so unceremoniously. Without the whole extra book of build-up, the fact that the White Witch disappears as a presence in the series after Lion wouldn't present a problem. Plus, while the creation of Narnia in Old-Testament style is nice, it's not essential to know from the beginning.
Of the four I've reread so far, A Horse and His Boy has been my favorite, although I find myself with surprisingly little to say about it- it's just a gripping, old-fashioned adventure story, with talking horses no less. I could go into the Christian symbolism throughout the series and so on and so forth, but I think that's kind of pointless; Lewis used Christianity as a framework, and it worked well for the stories that he was telling. I may change my opinion upon reading the later books, but as of now, Narnia doesn't awaken the desire in me to attempt any deeper analysis; it's just there to be thoroughly enjoyed, and I'm grateful for that. This series brings the excitement of reading a book under the covers with a flashlight when you're a little kid and it's supposed to be lights-out, and you get that feeling back every time you pick it up.
Foucault's Pendulum (by Umberto Eco)
While I've enjoyed every book by Eco that I've read so far, and FP is no exception, I do find myself slightly disappointed with the conclusion. Three-quarters of the book is fascinating, and then it kind of degenerates towards the end. It's not one of those stories where the book appears to run out of pages unexpectedly; there is a proper ending. However, the ending seems kind of banal compared to the depth of the material that proceeded it.
The book deals with conspiracy theories, particularly those concerning the Knights Templar. While conspiracy theories are almost never consistent with reality, the fact that people believe them leads to real conspiratorial, dangerous behavior, and that's the aspect of the topic that FP mainly deals with. However, by the end I felt like the message of the book had become "Gee, aren't these conspiracy theorists insanely dangerous?", and I had assumed that Eco was building up to something more interesting. It's entirely possible that there's a lot more to it than that, but I just didn't understand it- and I don't give many writers that kind of credit. I may have to try reading this one again in a few years and see what else is there.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (by Susanna Clarke)
I actually read this several months ago and forgot that I wanted to write about it, which isn't an encouraging sign. I did enjoy this book quite a bit in the end, but it wasn't a smooth ride.
In my attempt to properly sum up my impressions of this book, I keep coming back to an interesting question: how long should you give a book to "get good" before you give up on it? I'm forgiving of books being a little slow to start; I might characterize that as a flaw, but it won't discourage me from discovering what a book has to offer, once it really gets started. Besides, there's a pretty fine line between cutting out superfluous information and robbing a book of it's character, and I understand that everyone has a different take on that. I allow for that difference.
However, if a book takes over 350 pages to become interesting, isn't that pushing it just a bit?
Once I had FINALLY been introduced to the setting and the characters properly, it became a unique, downright fun reading experience. Before the titular characters team up and move into the forefront about halfway through the book, everything seems to revolve around secondary and tertiary characters for a long time, and I'm baffled by that decision. I understand that Clarke wanted to not only write about a world where magic is real, but create an entire alternate history for England, and you don't accomplish that in novella-length works; yet, I think there is just too much superfluous information here.
If there is one overall problem with the book, it is that Clarke seems to love the fantasy world she created far more than the story. There are copious footnotes, nearly all of which reference imaginary publications on the subject of magic in perfect MLA format. The references to imaginary books are cute at first, but at some point, I got tired of seeing references to books that were apparently very interesting, but that I would never get to read. It seemed like she was providing me copious documentation that her imaginary world was fully realized, and I really never doubted that it was- I just wanted to get on with the story.
Next on my reading list is more Narnia, the rest of Pullman's His Dark Materials series (although something tells me that it's going to annoy me), Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie...provided I can finish everything before the library summons the books back to its dark clutches. Oh dear.