Look Who’s Coming to Dinner

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I got a new dinner set recently. I’ve never really had a best dinner set before and my mother started me on this one with two pieces for Christmas. I loved it and we managed to get the rest of it in the after-Christmas sales.

It’s strange but having it makes me feel more grown up somehow. A formal dinner set is something I’ve always wanted and I guess now I have it, it feels like my home is starting to come together a little more.

While unpacking it the other day it made me think about that old game, ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?’, the one where you’d make a list of people from throughout history who you’d invite to dinner if you could. I used to love doing that when I was younger and so I thought it’d be fun to do it again now as a post, but with a bit of a twist – a list of fictional characters instead.

After giving it some thought, this is my list of ten characters. It took me a long while to put it together; there are so many interesting characters from books and film etc that it’s really hard to choose.

But in the end these are the ones I think would be a lot of fun. They’re not necessarily my favourite characters but I think they’d all be interesting and more importantly I think their conversations would be interesting too.

I chose ten because I think twelve people is a good number for a dinner party as it’s not too many people to cook for and they can talk in pairs or in groups. The other two people would be you, dear reader, and myself of course.

As far as the food goes I’d do an apple and pecan salad for the entree, spaghetti with prawns and rocket for the main, and an Eton mess for dessert. I think they’d complement each other well and I could manage most of them (the dessert would take some practice).

So who would you invite for dinner? 😉

Sherlock Holmes
I’ve loved Sherlock Holmes since reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a child. His stories and intellect would be fascinating around a dinner table.

Victor Frankenstein
Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favourite novels and one of the first books that made me want to write. Frankenstein is such a tragic character and it would be fascinating to pick his mind and justifications.

Gandalf the Grey
Gandalf is probably my favourite character of all time. He’d be a lot of fun to have at the table and he’d have some pretty interesting conversations with some of the other guests as well.

Hermione Granger
I think Hermione is the real hero of Harry Potter; her intelligence and skill save them over and over again and she’d be much better company at a dinner party than Harry or Ron. I’d love to see her pick Gandalf’s brain.

Scheherazade
The Arabian Nights (the original version) is another of the books that had a big influence on me growing up and I’ve always liked Scheherazade. Her insights into her time would be interesting and she could definitely tell a good story or two which would be great too.

Mister Spock
If Gandalf is my favourite fictional character Spock wouldn’t be far behind. He’d be fascinating (sorry) to talk to and one of the few people who could keep up with Holmes.

Long John Silver
Has there ever been a villain more fun than Long John Silver? Equally devious and charming, he’d be a lot of fun around the table, particularly if Spock and Holmes tried to see through his lies.

Mary Poppins
I loved Mary Poppins growing up and must have watched the film version a hundred times or more. Mary would be the perfect guest, entertaining and fun and capable of keeping some of the other guests in line if needed as well.

Willy Wonka
I have a soft spot for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; it’s just pure imagination and with his humour and charm, Wonka would be a great guest. It’d be great to pick his brain for recipe ideas too.

Morgan le Fay
I love the legend of King Arthur and I’ve always been particularly interested in Morgan. She often tends to be depicted quite badly, either as the evil sorceress or a conniving seductress (or both), but her story is really quite tragic. It would be be interesting hearing her perspective and she’d have a lot to talk about with Gandalf and Hermione too.

Photo © CJ Levinson 2016

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I stumbled across The Magicians by accident a couple of weeks ago. I’d not read any of Lev Grossman’s work before but there was something about The Magicians that grabbed my attention. It was partly the cover, a haunting image of a tree surrounded by fog, its leaves scattered like tears across a small lake, that caught my interest. Likewise, something about the description reminded me of a grown-up version of Narnia, an adult fantasy mixing the beloved worlds of Lewis with the sex, angst and conflict of real, everyday life. With The Magicians Grossman tries to reinvent modern fantasy for adults and it’s a novel unlike any I’ve read.

The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater, a teenager who’s just finished high school with his friends James and Julia. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life and pining for Julia, his unrequited love, Quentin lives in a near-constant melancholy; the only relief he finds is in a series of novels from his childhood about the magical world of Fillory. He dreams of living in Fillory and longs for it to be real, believing it would give purpose and meaning to his otherwise unremarkable life.

When Quentin discovers and is admitted to Brakebills, a college in upstate New York that teaches its students how to use and control magic, it seems that his dream is about to come true. But studying magic is nothing like he imagined. It’s tedious, arduous work and his fellow students are competitive and hostile. Suddenly Quentin is no longer the smartest in his class and finds himself struggling to understand his full potential. His depression returns even as he begins to fall in love with Alice, one of his few friends at Brakebills.

Eventually, after five long years, Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills. They move in with a few other graduates from Brakebills and Quentin soon falls into a familiar pattern, losing himself in a world of drugs, parties and alcohol. It begins to drive a wedge between them, with Quentin seemingly content to live a life of mediocrity, while Alice continues to learn about magic.

When another graduate of Brakebills reveals that he has found Fillory — a real place connected to a whole nexus of other worlds — Quentin’s listlessness lifts again. This is what he’s been waiting for; what he’s always wanted. Together the magicians journey to Fillory but soon find that everything is different. The real Fillory is nothing like the world they know from the stories, more nightmare than dream. Together they pledge to set things right in Fillory… but as their relationships begin to fall apart around them, they realise their quest will not only reveal the truth about Fillory but about themselves as well.

I’ve been thinking about The Magicians since I finished it last week and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. On the one hand there’s no doubt that it’s a brilliant, literate reimagining of modern fantasy. But on the other, there’s nothing about the novel that feels particularly magical or wondrous. That’s because, when you get to the heart of it, The Magicians isn’t a fantasy novel at all, not really, and it’s hard to know how to judge it.

Rather, The Magicians is a novel about fantasy. It’s an examination of the genre; it takes classic themes — like magic, strange creatures, fantastical worlds — and in dissecting them and putting them back together asks the question, what if magic were real? How would we use it? Would we value the gift or take it for granted? It’s a serious, adult novel that uses magic to explore the darker side of human nature and particularly the danger of apathy.

As such, what really stands out about the novel for me is the characters. It’s not a particularly long novel but all of the characters feel detailed and real. They’re real people, complete with hopes, dreams, flaws, jealousies… they’re magicians capable of great feats, yes, but they’re ordinary and imperfect and that’s what makes them compelling. Alice in particular fascinated me; brilliant yet shy, she seemed almost autistic at times, capable of great power but never really understanding it.

Quentin on the other hand is a study in contrasts. He is both a dreamer and a pessimist, a young man who finds himself with a gift he has always wanted, only to squander it when he realises it’s not what he thought it would be. His moods range wildly from joy to despair and he keeps making all of the wrong decisions again and again, so much so that as a reader you just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. But Quentin can’t help it. He’s our eyes into this world and represents our own expectations of magic; in a way we are Quentin and it’s hard to imagine that we’d react any differently.

Quentin is the main protagonist but it’s wrong to call him the hero of the story; there are no real heroes in The Magicians, just people. Everything Quentin does is because he longs to escape from his life but each time he just makes things worse and in the end that’s what The Magicians is really about — learning to accept reality, to make the most of what you have. It’s a lesson Quentin just can’t seem to learn and it costs him everything.

If there’s one problem I have with The Magicians, though, it’s that while all of the characters feel well developed, none of them are particularly likeable. With the possible exception of Alice they’re all bitter, competitive, narcissistic brats; Quentin in particular whines through most of the novel and it becomes tiring. None of the characters seem aware of the destruction they cause around them and while that’s the point, it makes it difficult to care what happens to them or to really relate to them.

Likewise, one of the other problems with The Magicians is that while it is a reinvention of modern fantasy, none of the ideas in the novel themselves are particularly original. Of course, they’re not meant to be; the story is meant to be reminiscent of classic fantasy motifs, making us look at them with new, adult eyes. For the most part that works and Grossman’s world succeeds in feeling familiar but different, but the setting still feels a little clichéd at times, particularly with some of the similarities between Narnia and Fillory.

At times I also felt that Grossman went a little too far in trying to make magic seem so ordinary in the story. Some of the scenes, particularly at Brakebills, feel like they’re included for no other reason than to show how hard it is to use magic in Grossman’s world (more like learning a science than a skill). I know that’s the point, to make it more realistic, but sometimes it just seems to take the magic out of, well, magic. On the other hand, some of the other magical scenes are captivating. There’s one scene in particular where Quentin watches the statue of a bird that a student had tried to bring to life; the spell had failed halfway through and the statue, thinking it’s alive, keeps trying to fly. But it’s too heavy and falls, only to get up and try again and again. It was little more than a paragraph but it’s haunting and stayed with me for the rest of the novel.

My only other real gripe with the novel is that while it’s well written, some of the dialogue feels a little stilted and unrealistic. Secondary characters like Eliot, meant to sound arrogant and supercilious, instead sound overly dramatic and some of the interaction between characters doesn’t ring true, particularly when they’re in larger groups. It’s a stark contrast to Grossman’s prose, which for the most part is excellent; there’s a subtle, rhythmic flow to much of his writing and some of his passages and descriptions are breathtaking.

Overall I’m still not really sure how I feel about The Magicians. I enjoyed it a great deal but at the same time I find it a difficult book to judge. As an idea and a reimagining of modern fantasy, it’s fascinating, but as a novel it’s not perfect by any means and is held back (ironically) by some rather mundane flaws.

Perhaps in the end The Magicians is a little too ambitious for its own good but in a market flooded with Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter rip-offs, it still feels refreshingly different. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent novel and as a novel that makes you think about the nature of fantasy and reality in our own lives as well, it’s a resounding success.

Fantasy fans and general readers wanting something a little different will love it. Highly recommended.

Score:

August Reading List

I realised something this week: I’m so not a winter person. This has been one of the coldest winters in Sydney for years and I’m sitting here with a tea and four blankets as I’m writing this, trying to nurse a nasty cold. I don’t want to whine but I’m really looking forward to spring next month.

One of the things I like about winter, though, is that it’s perfect reading weather. It’s absolutely freezing at the moment but there’s nothing better than curling up in bed with a good book on a cold day and letting the story carry you somewhere far, far away. I think I’ve read more in the last two months than during the rest of the year combined.

Lately I’ve been working my way through the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. The awards are being held in Melbourne this year, which means I was able to vote for the first time. It’s a good list this year too. I voted for Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock in the end; I loved how fun and inventive it was but any of the nominees could win really. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was the only one I couldn’t get to before the deadline; I’ll be reading that next.

I’m reading Nam Le’s The Boat at the moment and these are some of the other books I plan to read soon as well. The one I’m looking forward to the most is The Girl Who Played With Fire. I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I finally managed to get the first sequel the other day. Can’t wait to get stuck into it. It seems like everyone’s reading Larsson’s trilogy at the moment; it’s like The Da Vinci Code all over again. Except Larsson’s books are well written. And, you know, good.

I’ll post some reviews once I’ve finished them. I’ve been wanting to try out my new camera as well, so who knows, I might even do a couple of video reviews.

So what are you reading at the moment?

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

First Impressions: Bacigalupi’s short fiction has taken the SF world by storm in recent years. This is his first novel, about genetic engineering and a post-oil future where global corporations vie for the world’s remaining resources. Looks very promising.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson

First Impressions: Lisbeth Salander finds herself accused of murder and goes on the run while Mikael Blomkvist tries to clear her of the crime. Dragon Tattoo was the best thriller I’ve read in years; if this one’s even half as good as the first, I’ll be very happy.

The Forgotten Garden
Kate Morton

First Impressions: A young woman’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother’s life. It seems a little too reminiscent of The Secret Garden at times for me, at least in tone. I loved Morton’s The Shifting Fog, though, so maybe it’ll surprise me.

The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster

First Impressions: I’m not that familiar with Paul Auster, although he seems to really divide readers. Illusions is about a man who investigates the life of a silent movie star who disappeared in the 1920s, only to find similarities with his own life. Sounds interesting.

The Art of Travel
Alain de Botton

First Impressions: I’ve not read de Botton before but a friend recommended this to me recently. de Botton explores the nature of travel (why we travel, what we get out of it, etc.) through philosophy, art and other musings. Sounds like just my cup of tea.

The Copper Bracelet
Jeffrey Deaver (et al)

First Impressions: A sequel to The Chopin Manuscript, this is a collaborative audionovel written by 16 writers including Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child. The Chopin Manuscript didn’t quite work but I like the idea of a collaborative novel. Hopefully this is more successful.

September Reading List

Water for Elephantsborn_standing_upcurse_of_chalionvalentines_castleend_of_timerestless

These are some of the books I plan to read over the next month. I like buying most of my books second-hand if I can and I’ve had a lucky run on eBay during the last few weeks; all of the auctions I’ve bid on I’ve won and I even found a couple of hardcovers I’d been trying to find all year.

The two books I’m looking forward to reading most are Water for Elephants and Restless; I’ve heard good things about both Gruen and Boyd but haven’t read them before. I’ve also had Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time since last year and haven’t read it yet; Bear is one of my favourite authors and this seems like a return to his best science fiction.

I probably won’t be able to read all of them due to my health but if I can read two or three in the month, I’ll be happy. I’ll post some reviews when I’ve finished them as well.

I wonder what you’re reading at the moment?

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen

First Impressions: Unusual and beautiful. A dark, romantic story set primarily in a circus during the Great Depression; Rosie is a beautiful, sympathetic character as real as any of the human performers. Excellent so far.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
Steve Martin

First Impressions: Steve Martin’s memoir. Martin is one of my favourite comedians and a gifted writer. Should be a fascinating, insightful and funny look at his life and inspirations.

The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold

First Impressions: The first in Bujold’s Chalion series. Bujold is one author I’m not that familiar with, although she’s well respected in SF and fantasy. I thought I’d try this before her Vorkosigan novels.

Lord Valentine’s Castle
Robert Silverberg

First Impressions: Silverberg is one of my favourite authors and this is supposed to be among his best novels. In tone it feels a little like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I’ll be interested to see if I like it as much as The Book of Skulls, my favourite of Silverberg’s.

City at the End of Time
Greg Bear

First Impressions: Bear’s latest and his return to hard science fiction. Bear is one of the few highly literate writers in SF and so far this looks very good, although I’m not sure I understand the concept yet. But that’s not unusual with Bear. I’ll read it next.

Restless
William Boyd

First Impressions: I know almost nothing about Boyd, although this is actually his ninth novel. He strikes me a little like John le Carré and Graham Greene, at least in tone. Looks excellent; an absorbing historical spy novel.

literacyliteracy3

Just a quick note as well: next Tuesday is International Literacy Day and bloggers are being asked to write a post to highlight the falling standards of literacy in the world. It’s estimated that one in five adults around the world is illiterate, with more than 65% being women, and more than 75 million children are out of school.

As a writer literacy is very important to me, particularly indigenous literacy in Australia, and this is something I would have done even if it wasn’t being organised. If you’d like to take part as well, you can sign up here.

The Books That Changed My Life (part two)

I’m happy to announce I’ve just passed a small milestone. This post marks my 200th post! About time, eh? 🙂 While I know it’s not that many posts, considering I wasn’t sure if I would continue blogging that long ago reaching 200 posts is something I’m quite pleased with.

I’ve known the 200 was coming for some time and it seemed like a good time to change my blog as well. I’m now self-hosted. After several experiences on WordPress, I felt it was time for a change; I have less time for blogging and this way I can enjoy writing at my own pace. I’m looking at it as a chance to explore some new ideas, so I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

I wanted to do a special post for my 200th and decided to save the second part of my books project for the occasion. I’m quite happy with how it’s turned out so far. It’s been fun revisiting these books again.

This second part is more about the books that have shaped my philosophy. There’ll be one last part to end the series next week, a profile of the three books that have had the biggest impact on my life. Let me know if you’ve read any of them. I wonder which books have changed your life?  😉

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
American Pastoral is one of those novels that leaves you reeling. On the surface it’s about two parents whose idyllic life is destroyed when their daughter sets off a bomb to protest the Vietnam War. But beneath that Roth examines the morality of objectivism (Merry becomes a Jain, concerned about murdering germs while oblivious to the deaths she caused) and the bond between fathers and daughters. Swede’s world falls apart and Pastoral left me wondering how far we’ve really come in 40 years. Which is Roth’s point.

The Speaking Land by Ronald and Catherine Berndt
I’ve been interested in Aboriginal mythology since I was young, particularly the stories of The Dreaming and the Rainbow Serpent. Aboriginal culture dates back over 50,000 years and The Speaking Land is the best collection I’ve read; it gives a real sense of the beliefs behind the myths, the reverence Aboriginal people have for the land and the spirit. It showed me an Australia I didn’t know, one I wish more people could see.

God Said, Ha! by Julia Sweeney
God Said, Ha! is remarkable in that it deals with big issues like cancer and death in an honest way and never feels depressing. In the mid 90s Julia Sweeney had just begun to look forward to a new life, but then her brother was diagnosed with cancer. As she started to care for him her parents moved in – and then Sweeney was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It’s a sad memoir and yet incredibly funny and insightful. It shows how laughter can get us through even the most difficult of times.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
I first read Nietzsche in high school but didn’t try again until a few years ago. As a critique of society Beyond Good and Evil is still relevant but it’s Nietzsche’s development of the “will to power” I find interesting. It’s often interpreted as violent (or fascistic) but that wasn’t what Nietzsche meant; rather it’s about overcoming individual weakness, explaining the motivations of individuals and societies and their actions. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read and has influenced my writing many times.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I first read Kafka at about the same time as Nietzsche and I loved the absurdity of Metamorphosis. The idea of waking up one day as a giant insect makes the story so surreal but also very human. Kafka is less interested in the science of the transformation than in how Gregor tries to adjust to his new life. In the end it’s a very sad, tragic story, and yet darkly funny. Which makes its critique of society and our loss of humanity all the more poignant.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End was one of the first SF books I read. It’s about an alien race that suddenly appears on Earth, promising to help humans reach their full potential; and yet reaching that potential means losing everything that makes us who we are. Clarke uses the story to explore the idea of utopia and what the loss of inspiration means for society. The depth of ideas in the novel is staggering and it leaves you both a little wiser and sadder for having read it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale the first time I read it; I was too young but I was stunned when I reread it. It’s a moral fable, a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism, and it has a feel of history to it that makes it all the more troubling. Set in an America where women are property and the Handmaids’ only role is to have children, Handmaid is eerie when you think about the role of women in some countries. Atwood’s other novel Oryx & Crake is almost as powerful.

Animal Farm by George Orwell
It’s hard to decide which is the better novel between Animal Farm and1984 but Animal Farm, with its complete disdain of power and those who abuse it, has always left more of an impact on me. As a novel critiquing social and political power it’s unparalleled, but also in the way it continues to raise concerns about the way we exploit animals and their conditions. In the end it’s a pessimistic novel but it’s ironic as well that by turning Stalin and Trotsky into animals, Orwell actually succeeds in making them more human.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Of all of Hemingway’s works it’s The Old Man and the Sea that I’ve always related to the most. It’s exquisitely written and such a simple idea, a battle of wills between an old man and a marlin… yet it’s so much more than that. It represents the maturity of Hemingway and his writing; how rather than have Sargasso return victorious as a young Hemingway might have written, instead he returns with no more than a skeleton. It’s a lesson about life and courage and I’ve learned more about writing from Hemingway than any writer.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Like Childhood, The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the first SF books I read. The story revolves around Genly as he tries to convince the inhabitants of Winter to join the Ekumen, but it’s really about gender and friendship. The Gethenians are hermaphroditic and the friendship between Genly and Estraven forms the heart of the novel. Darkness was one of the first SF novels to create a world convincingly, with believable characters. It influenced much of my early writing and still does today.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger had a huge impact in the 1960s, introducing “grok” to the English language. It follows Mike Smith, who is raised by Martians after a failed mission to Mars. When he returns to Earth and learns about humans, Mike begins to spread his Martian philosophy, forming his own church, causing others to begin to see him as dangerous. Stranger is a brilliant idea-driven novel and one of the few SF novels that’s genuinely literate; reading it is like getting a high of ideas and the scope of the novel is breathtaking. It’s the kind of novel I’d love to write one day.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I’ve always enjoyed old myths and my favourite myth is the legend of King Arthur. When I first read White’s version what struck me about it was the tone; it starts playfully but by the end it’s mirthless. Yet that’s what makes it so strong. White uses the legend as an allegory for World War II, filling it with the realities of war and an examination of communism and socialism. It’s as much about human nature as chivalry, Arthur struggling to find a philosophy that fits his (and our) world. It’s a sad, beautiful novel, one I reread regularly.