11 October 2008

What I'm reading

The confession: for awhile now, I haven't been able to enjoy reading fiction written for adults (I started to write "adult novels" and realized that would be prone to misinterpretation). I feel like my English-professor license may be revoked at any time.

Even genre fiction, otherwise known as brain candy, hasn't appealed. I've been right off mysteries, once my preferred escape fiction. When I visit my family, I read romance novels, as they provide the right level and kind of escape (look, a fantasy situation where all the interpersonal conflicts get resolved! they live happily ever after!), but as soon as I get home, I can pick up another romance by the same author and think, "Why in heaven's name would I want to read this?" Fantasy/science fiction, usually my old reliable, isn't working for me either.

A lot of this is because I'm spending a lot of my time, mentally, in the fifteenth century (with a few excursions a little bit forward or backward in the abysm of time). And I want to spend my time there. I really enjoy my current research projects. But there are limits to how much time one can spend reading work material, even fascinating, well-written scholarly work or charming, original medieval tales. Thus, children's literature to the rescue.

When I got back from England this summer, I acquired all the Swallows and Amazons books I didn't already have and read right through the whole lot. After all, there's nothing half so worthwhile as simply messing about in boats. As I've said before, I love re-reading my favorites.

But I'm branching out. This week, I've read three kids' books that were new to me and liked all of them, though they're all quite different. Sylvia Waugh's The Mennyms is a strange and charming book about a family of life-sized rag dolls living in present-day (well, now about a decade back) England, trying to keep anyone from noticing that they aren't human. Very little really happens; that is, what's advertised as the big conflict turns out to be a non-event, and the real drama lies elsewhere entirely. Rather like life, now I think about it.

I discovered a Diana Wynne Jones novel I hadn't read yet, Hexwood. Its form is almost experimental, as events take place in a non-linear fashion, which confuses the characters; but Jones motivates these temporal shifts by a science-fiction device. Somewhere past the middle it dawned on me that Hexwood is an Arthurian novel (with most names changed to protect the guilty). Arthur has a fairly small role, but I think I should have noticed Merlin sooner. On the other hand, there's competition for the Merlin role. I can't quite decide if Verrian is Vivianne/Nimue; probably, but she seems much nicer than her avatar. I'll have to put this on the list of Outside Arthurian Literature I assign to students in my Arthurian Lit classes. It's a lot more complicated than most YA Arthurian books; more "inspired by Arthur" than a close follower of that plot.

And my favorite from the week: Pat Murphy's Wild Girls. I read a review of this last year and thought I might read the book, but then forgot about it till I saw it on a library shelf. I loved the book, and it went somewhere quite different from what I thought the review suggested. I loved it partly because it's set in my old stomping grounds (the characters are just a few years older than I am), and it's a pleasure to re-visit my very own childhood in this way. I also like the way life in the book continues past the climactic moment that ends the first part, and the way the characters invent personal myths knowing that that's what they are, but recognizing that sometimes you need to believe in something crazy because the truth hurts too much. You deal with the truth later, but the myth is sustaining in the meantime.

Happy reading.

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