I am about to do a book a great disservice. Or maybe not.
by John Banville (#6)
See, the problem with this book is that I read it about a week after finishing The Year of Magical Thinking. Oh, sure, I read 44 Scotland Street as a breather in between, but still. How do you go from a psyche-wrenching memoir about the loss of a spouse to a (sorry) relatively less wrenching novel about the loss of a spouse without the latter getting hosed in the deal?
You might think that Didion's memoir would have primed me for Banville's Booker-winning effort, but no such luck. My brain had developed a huge, thick scab -- one of those toughies you can poke with a pin and not feel a thing -- to cover the gaping wound where my grief-and-loss sympathies are housed.
Though maybe The Sea just wasn't that good. You tell me. On that note, you may question my judgment even more after what I'm about to tell you.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke (#7)
Guys! I loved this book! Why did I wait so long to read it? Why didn't someone tell me? (Okay, I remember some of you telling me. Why didn't you tell me HARDER?)
Now, I can sense public opinion about my taste shifting even as I write this. For example, I know for a fact that my pal Raincoaster absolutely reviles this book. And I know that a lot of otherwise right-minded souls didn't care for it, either. Which, you know, fine.
But! The Thackeray-esque wit and attention to descriptive detail! The magic! The footnotes! These all touched me in a special place, a secret place only accessible by a fizzy magical cocktail that includes the nineteenth century and -- someone hold my hand while I say it again -- footnotes.*
Admittedly, the story takes a while to get moving. In fact, for the first hundred or so pages, it's just stage setting and character development. You could be fairly convinced that absolutely nothing is happening, especially if you're of the opinion that the footnotes aren't worth your time. But the footnotes are essential. While they aren't especially germane to moving the story forward, almost every one is its own powerful, self-contained, awesomely original tale of magic, reminiscent of old Russian and eastern European folk tales. Regarded as a whole, these hundreds of little storytelling gems are a staggering achievement in and of themselves. They create a gorgeous tapestry of magic, a backdrop that makes the dearth of magic in the story's present all the more stark and depressing. These little tales also form the breadcrumb trail that lures you into the heart of the book, where the action finally starts to unfold. And when it does start to unfold... well, I can only speak for myself, but my reading pace picked up considerably, to the point that I was lugging this massive book around with me so that I could read any chance I could get.
And the payoff was worth it. The ending was absolutely perfect. How many books can lay claim to that distinction?
I was saying to Rusty that I can't remember the last time I read a book that was so utterly satisfying. It's not like there was a lot of subtext or moral ambiguity or any of that stuff we generally expect of serious books written for serious people. Instead, it had the ability to push the same buttons as the very best children's books, such as The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia, while at the same time possessing a caustic, intelligent, grown-up humour that, as I've said, reminded me of Thackeray. (The section of the book dealing with the Napoleonic wars probably helped that comparison along, too.)
It's wonderful to know that there are writers like Clarke out there: smart, funny people who care to revive older storytelling traditions and make them fresh. We don't want to risk pomo-ing ourselves to death, do we?
*Oh my stars and heavens above! The footnotes! I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. A deliciously tangential heaven.