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Hurray! I have read 6 of my 12 Books 12 Months list.  And with this book I am fully appreciating the benefits of the 12 Books 12 Months idea because without it, I would most likely have gotten lost on reading tangents about sci-fi Jesuits, emotional food, and teenage demi-gods.  And I would completely forget about all these books that the Sara from 6 months ago wanted to read.  With the 12 Books list and the brilliant monthly summaries from E on latter day bohemian (I think those monthly round-ups really play an important role in motivation), I’ve managed to alternate between my whim readings and my planned readings – thus, moving ahead on some goals while also pursuing other spontaneous interests.  It’s a really good feeling.

So even though I was very tempted to immediately jump into the sequel to the space traveling Jesuit story, I did myself a favor and picked up Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  I had heard about this book at the ALA Conference this past summer in D.C. when I had the great privilege of seeing Salman Rushdie at an author talk.  He was charming and intelligent, and his story about the beginnings of this book had me hooked.

This is a children’s book with some obvious, but playful, political messages.  Rushdie wrote this just after the fatwa against his life was announced, wondering each day if he would see his son again, to whom the book is dedicated.  So we get greasy politicians, evil tyrants, and egotistical princes.  We also get some absolutely delightful bits — like the chapter headings: The Shah of Blah, An Iff and a Butt, and a wonderful nod to Beatles’ lyrics.

My timing in reading this book was good and bad.  Bad – the pace and humor of a children’s book felt kind of jarring when I was in the middle of a stressful, high-stakes work week.  Good – the pace and humor of a children’s book jarred me out of thinking about the stressful, high-stakes work week … for a few minutes at a time, at least.

BookmarkI also had to rethink my reading style for this book.  See, I’m anal.  I know it.  I admit it.  I use folded sheets of paper as bookmarks so I can take notes while reading, and I even do this with fiction books.  It’s a habit I developed after reading Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind (very highly recommended as a book to own).  I have a 3-ring binder full of old book notes from pre-grad school, and now a nice thick manilla folder of book notes post-grad school.  But children’s books do not lend themselves to taking notes, at least not for me.  I tried taking basic fiction notes at the beginning of the book — things like characters and place names — but finally I just put the pen down and read the book for the sake of reading.  Pleasure reading.  Personal pleasure reading.

This truly is the work of a storyteller.  Sure, it might not be the best story in the world, or the most developed characters, or strongest plot, but it’s not supposed to be.  This is a book that was meant to be read aloud at night to children, or read aloud to anyone who needs a distraction.  And if you feel like being anal about it, well, read the short glossary at the end about the names in the book and then get on with the story.

“Believe in your own eyes and you’ll get into a lot of trouble, hot water, a mess…”   — Iff, the Water Genie (p. 63)

This post is about 3 books I read for the 12 Books, 12 Months reading club and 1 book that I did not.

On my original 12 Books, 12 Months blog post (http://esquetee.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/latecomer-to-12-books-12-months/), I listed out the Connie Willis related books as such:

  1. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, 1992
  2. Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the dog by Jerome K. Jerome, 1889
  3. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, 1998
  4. Black Out by Connie Willis, 2010
  5. All Clear by Connie Willis, 2010

Here’s the gist of this series:  It’s the year 2057, time travel has been invented but only the history departments of major universities even bother with it since the money holders found out they can’t steal things from the past (no really, they physically cannot remove objects from the past, no matter how hard they try).  I don’t recall any of the historians trying to visit the future, but then … all the time travelers are historians, not futurists. Most of the stories focus on visitng England in World War II.  Doomsday Book, however, is focused on the Black Plague, and To Say Nothing of the Dog (TSND) centers around 1888 – Victorian times.

But in my 12 Books 12 Months list, I forgot about the story that started it all — Fire Watch, from the 1984 short story collection of the same name.  So I read that first and I’m very glad I did.  Even though this story was published first, the events in it actually take place *after* the events in Doomsday Book, which came out in 1992. Fire Watch is a good place to start not only because it’s the first story in the series, but because it takes the reader right into the heart of Willis’ style.  Our hero is a PhD student in history who has to do “field work” in London, England during the Blitz.  He is stationed at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Have you ever seen war ruins? Have you visited a church or a school that has remained in shambles for decades as a reminder of how stupid war can be?  I visited such a church in Stuttgart, Germany while I was a freshman in college.  The roof was gone, the windows were empty eye sockets.  There were large laminated black and white photographs around the ruins showing what it looked like before the war.  It was beautiful.  Even as a heathen atheist, I could see how beautiful and special this place was.  And it was dead now. Fire Watch reminded me of that church and then it showed me what it would have been like to be there when it happened.  Bombs, incendiaries, fires, and more bombs.  The Fire Watch was the group of volunteers who stood guard at the cathedral and tried to put out as many fires and incendiaries as they could, often getting killed in the process.

Strange as it may sound, this novella set in World War II reminded me how painful it had been to read Doomsday Book set in 1348 the first time.  So I decided not to read it again after all.  Doomsday is a very good book — historical fiction done as historical fiction should be, but man, was history depressing sometimes.  I don’t remember the story very well, but I remember crying at least once. I don’t want to be depressed when the days are getting shorter and the weather colder so I moved on to Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome – a comedy travelogue about three chums taking holiday on the Thames in a pleasant English June.

But first I will tell you about the book that got me here.  I first read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis when I was a sophomore in college.  I found it on a “take one, leave one” shelf at the college library and completely fell in love with it.  I was a history major with crazy, delightfully eccentric history professors, and the book seemed to be made specifically for me.  One of my requirements of an excellent book is that it leads me on to other excellent books.  In the 10ish years since I first read it, I have worked my way through some of the other classics that it introduced me to — The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, the Sherlock Holmes canon, and – of course – Three Men in a Boat.  My re-read this time around has given me more to look up that I forgot about — Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novels.

Call me a heretic, but I actually think the Connie Willis sci-fi is a far better book than the Victorian classic.  I did enjoy Jerome’s anecdotes and (some of) his tangents into English history and sentimental descriptions.  I have to admit that the Victorian elements of TSND made a LOT more sense after reading Jerome.  My advice would be to skim through Jerome’s book (it is free out on Gutenberg and FeedBooks) and get the taste of Victorian flourish and a dose of good humor before traveling through time with Willis.

Willis definitely has her own sense of humor and uses it very well in TSND — especially where dogs and cats are concerned.  I also love that sci-fi in this instance is not about the gadgetry but more about theory and thought puzzles.  In TSND, the thought puzzle revolves around time, paradox, and whether or not history can “correct” itself.  I won’t go more into it because I would just confuse us both, trust me.

Also, she doesn’t simply quote from other works, she weaves them into the texture of the story.  One of her characters uses examples from Agatha Christie’s Poirot to try and solve a problem, and another character relies almost entirely on Tennyson’s poetry for everything he says.

TSND cries out to be a hyperlink novel. Unfortunately, the ebook edition available on Amazon is pathetic.  Granted, I only looked at the sample chapter, but the format of the chapter headings was ghastly and it did not include any table of contents.  Why?  Why would you not have something as basic as a table of contents for an ebook?  I read the entire Jerome book in the Kindle app on an iPad and it had the same problems – no table of contents and clumsy formatting in the text.  Being able to quickly look up obscure Victorian terms by simply tapping made the reading much easier, though. I realized that my experience in reading these books now is very different than it was ten years ago thanks to the online search tools that I keep close at hand.  I first read TSND around 1999.  Google Images and Wikipedia didn’t come out till 2001 – which I used this time to find what the heck a penwiper is supposed to look like and to follow the route along the Thames.

Part 1: Off-the-cuff initial reactions to Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The book could be summed up as “No! That’s not what I said!” in a painful, wincing way.
It was very simply and elegantly written, mixing phrases and metaphors from famous English translations of the Bible with Pullman’s own what-if imaginings.  He managed to put some realistic human angles into the story of the gospels yet keep some of the original fairy tale aspects, too.   One of the best examples I’ve seen of showing how we got it wrong, we got it all wrong.

Jesus’ soliloquy at Gethsemane is a beautiful, believable, universal surrender to doubting the divine and, at the same time, a love letter to this crazy world we live in.  I think everyone should read this book for at least that chapter alone, and if you want to skip ahead to it, fine — it’s pages 192 – 201 in the hardback edition.
I do wish that the book had a completely different title.  The given title was too distracting to me.  As I was reading, I kept trying to place things according to what the the title told me to expect, which made parts of the story confusing.  I wish the title had instead been the big bold phrase on the inside front flap of the dust jacket, as well as the splash for the book’s official website:

This is a story.

A much more powerful way to describe what the reader is about to experience … and by the end of the book, you might think of that title in a whole different way.

Part 2: Paper or Plastic?

On another note completely … this is a book I will definitely be reading again in it’s e-book edition.  Or perhaps I should say … in it’s Enhanced Edition.  It’s not clear to me whether it would be Philip Pullman’s voice reading the audio track that accompanies the text, but I am very excited to see the interviews.  The re-reading will probably have to wait till November, however.

Karen Armstrong. A Short History of Myth, 2005

First book done!  for 12 Books, 12 Months

I am SO glad I started 12 Books, 12 Months with this one.  It was the only non-fiction book in my list but it paves the way for much of the fiction that I’m planning to read this year (and into next).  I started with Short History of Myth because it is the first title in the Canongate Myth Series — books by different authors, from different countries, retelling a myth from their culture.  I heard about this series because Philip Pullman’s latest book is the latest addition to the series (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ).  But I have this thing about putting my media consumption in chronological order, whether it be movies, books, or TV series.  I can’t start Buffy in the middle or end, I have to see it from the pilot episode, moving forward… for example.

With the Canongate Myth Series, I am making an exception because: 1) I can’t get all the books anyway since a couple of them have not been translated yet, as far as I know, and 2) I really don’t want to wait that long to read Philip Pullman’s book, man.  And besides 3) I only have the Pullman book from my local public library for another week, so I have to start reading it, like, now.

It also helped that Mark happened to own a copy of Karen Armstrong’s book already.

The book is a nice, short introduction to mythology — just 150 pages long.  In such a small amount of space, it would be hard to really do justice to any particular aspect of mythology so I have to give Armstrong some credit for summing things up as well as she did.  My biggest problem with the book was in the second and third chapters when she is describing the development of mythology and religion during the Palaeolithic and Neolithic Periods. There were so many universal statements and broad sweeping assumptions that I started getting really annoyed with the writing, even though I was really into the topic.  Starting with the fourth chapter on early cities and city-states, the writing improved and the book got a lot more interesting.  I now have a longer reading list with things I never thought I would want to read, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, when man first turns his back on his gods — “Mortals are better off without these destructive encounters with irresponsible gods” (p. 74).

From there, we go into the Axial Age – so named because it is considered a pivotal time in humanity’s spiritual development and marks the beginning of religions as we know them today.  Post-Axial followed that with religions trying to become rational – throwing out their mythology in favor of silly attempts at “proving” the facts in their respective literatures.  And finally, we get The Great Western Transformation, which brings us up to modern day.  This chapter is terribly sad, depressing, emotional, but, by the end, hopeful.

This might be a weird analogy, but bear with me … I felt like I was reading something like Peter Pan, with a lot of foreshadowing of Tinkerbell’s death and not knowing if this new altered version of Peter Pan would save her or not.  At the same time, I found myself rooting for Tinkerbell even though I’ve always thought of her as rude and troublesome before.  Replace Tinkerbell in this equation with religion/mythology and maybe you’ll get what I mean.

Mythology is the hero in this little book.  A misunderstood, riches-to-rags character of heartache.  Our heartache.  Their heartache.  Everyone’s heartache.  But if another person’s mythology isn’t dressed up like our own, we try to destroy it … then steal the clothes to drape over our own mythology anyway.  Does mythology die in the end?  I’ll leave that to you to decide.

The last twelve pages of the book are some of the best twelve pages I have ever read — Armstrong mentions both T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and magic realism as two examples of modern literature foreseeing and dealing with the nihilistic position we’ve put ourselves in by rejecting all our mythologies.  And no, she does not accept fundamentalist nuts as participants in mythology — one of my favorite quotes from the book: “once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion.” (p. 130)

And why do we need mythology, you might ask?  Armstrong gave plenty of reasons, but I like how her quote from Blaise Pascal summed it up best:  “When I see the blind and wretched state of men, when I survey the whole universe in its deadness, and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, or what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape.  Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.”  (p. 127)

Some other quotes to end with:

p. 124 “Myth had made human beings believe that they were bound up with the essence of the universe, yet now it appeared that they had only a peripheral place on an undistinguished planet revolving around a minor star.”

p. 138 “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of our past.”

p. 149 “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.”

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