Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is the story of Quentin Clearwater, a high school senior in Brooklyn who is bored and depressed with his life. He tries to make his dreary existence a little better by escaping into a series of books about the magical land of Fillory. He becomes so obsessed that he even learns how to do magic tricks. Then one day he gets a mysterious transcript of the unpublished fifth book in the Fillory series which leads him to the real life magical academy of Brakebills. Following a very long and difficult exam he gets accepted into the school and starts learning real magic. Imagine if a person obsessed with the Chronicles of Narnia was accepted to Hogwarts. It completely turns his life around. But Brakebills is not quite the magic he was hoping for. It is a world of arrogance, hedonism, and excess. The characters are constantly unhappy and turning to sex, drugs, and alcohol. And even becoming a real magician can’t make Quentin happy. And just when he thinks he hits rock bottom, that’s when Quentin and his friends find out that not only is Fillory real how to get there. When they arrive they go in search of an adventure that will make it all worthwhile and better, but not even that is what they hoped for.

I’m generally not a fan of books that take a long time to pick up in terms of the action. And while the first 250 pages are devoted to explaining Quentin’s rather mundane magical education, there is no lack of storytelling. There are brief periods of action, like when a terrifying creature from another dimension shows up in the middle of their class, the school wide welters tournament (which is a game sort of like a magical version of chess where they are the pieces), and when Quentin and the fourth years go for a “semester abroad” to Antarctica. And even without little action there was a lot of anticipation. I spent a long time waiting for everything, which I knew was going to go down, to actually happen. And just when I couldn’t take the build-up any longer the action came.

Generally, however, the story is less about the action and more about the characters. The characters are believable in their flawed humanity. Quentin’s main character trait is his perpetual unhappiness, even when he gets his heart’s desire it seems inadequate. Then there is shy and intelligent Alice who prefers to have her nose in a book at all times and excels at magic, the aloof and magically-gifted Eliot whose superiority complex Quentin finds endearing, overly competitive and loud Janet, and Josh the large and not as gifted member of their crew who always feels inadequate next to the rest. Each with their strengths and weaknesses make them fully-formed realistic people that remind me of people I know and traits in my personality that I may or may not like. I became very invested and attached to the characters and their exploits.

While The Magicians references many other well known fantasy series including Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz, it is not the fantasy novel of our childhoods. It is much more adult. It is a darker, rawer, and grittier view of magic. Often times turning the idea that magic can save and make everything better on its head. Learning real magic doesn’t make Quentin’s life better, in fact it may even make it worse. Like all other fantasy books little things mentioned off hand became big things affecting the final outcome. When everything was said and done I was just as depressed as Quentin. When it was over I found myself wanting more because not all the questions were answered and I’m secretly hoping when the next book comes out it will have a happy ending (though I doubt it). All things consider, I really enjoyed this book. I recommend it to anyone who is an avid fantasy fan.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key is the story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris. She is given as an assignment the commemoration of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ on its sixtieth anniversary, something that she knew nothing about. I regrettable admit that I know nothing about it myself (and as a modern history major in college focusing on the post WWII era that is surprising). Anyway she starts investigating and learns all about this dark time in French history where the Vichy government (the fascist regime in charge) instructs the French police to go door-to-door to round up the Jewish families living in the Paris suburbs. They were arrested and imprisoned in the stadium Velodrome D’Hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv’) in appalling conditions before being shipped to holding camps where the parents were separated from the kids all of whom eventually sent directly to Auschwitz. While she investigates, Julia learns that her aloof French husband’s family is somehow connected with the second protagonist, Sarah, a young Jewish girl who is arrested in the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up. Sarah intent on protecting her brother locks him in a cupboard promising she will be back for him. But as time goes by she realizes that is less and less likely unless she can break out of the camp and find her way back to Paris. Julia becomes engrossed in nothing but learning all about Sarah and telling her about how her in-laws helped her. The more she learns, the more her personal life falls apart.

So when I originally picked this book up I thought it fit the mold of most books I read: historical fiction and mystery. But the more I read the book became less mysterious and more emotional. It was like reading someone’s depressing family history, in a good way. I became invested in these characters, and found myself constantly reading so that I could learn more about what would happen to Sarah, her brother, and Julia. New and sad developments threw me for a loop. I almost cried at one point. It truly was an emotional masterpiece. It really captures the terror and atrocity that these families went through.

The book brings up a big debate that many European people have faced over the past seventy years. Is it better to remember or to forget? There is a line in the book that states “no one wants to be reminded of that, nobody wants to think about that.” And while that is true, and to use an old cliché ignorance is bliss, but how can those who were affected by such tragedies easily forget. It took decades for the governments of these countries to admit to their parts in these atrocities of humanity. Another theme that the book centers upon is the need to make right the errors of the past, to somehow make up for what was done and your part in it, whatever that may be.

This book not only explains the terrible events of the Vel’ D’Hiv and the Vichy government but does it in a way so emotionally charged it’s hard to forget. It is told almost effortlessly and reads more like a journal than a fictional story. The beginning is a little bit annoying as it switches back and forth between Julia and Sarah, but by page 160 it focuses entirely on Julia and her search for Sarah. While it is truly heartbreaking at times, I recommend this book to all students of history who want to learn about a terrible time in the past, especially if you have an interest in World War II or the Holocaust. Again with the clichés, those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Speaking with the Angel

A collection of short stories compiled and edited by Nick Hornby. I don’t know why I continuously try to read short story collections. I rarely finish them, and rarely enjoy them. Maybe it’s because I need to get more invested in a story to enjoy it. I don’t like first impressions or quick meetings. Essentially that is what a short story is, a quick first impression of a story or author. Sure, they are complete stories with beginnings, middles, and ends just shorter. It’s not that I crave more, it’s just I don’t enjoy them as much as a really meaty novel. It’s like having a dinner full of appetizers; it’s just not as satisfying.

But I read it anyway. I got Speaking with the Angels at a used book store for only a dollar (sweet deal, right) and I thought I’d give it a try. I like many of the authors who contributed to the books. Hornby, Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, and Helen Fielding included. Plus there is a story written by Colin Firth. I didn’t know he could write (I mean I knew he played an author in Love, Actually but those are not transferable skills). Plus the stores had really fun sounding titles (Nipple Jesus, Luckybitch, Catholic Guilt (You know You Love It) among them.

Some stories were pretty good. I liked the one by Dave Eggers entitled “After I Was Thrown Into the River and Before I Drowned.” It’s about a dog, told from the dogs perspective. It was interesting and creative. The one by Colin Firth was good too. It was told from the perspective of a young boy about “The Department of Nothing.”

There were also bad stories. One called “The Slave” was so boring I stopped reading it part way through. Also “Catholic Guilt” was written in British slang, in what I’m taking to be a Scottish Accent. And being not British I was taken completely out of the story which I probably otherwise would have enjoyed. Mostly the stories were just dull and not memorable. I don’t remember what they were about, let alone if I liked them.

If you like short stories then I say, definitely read this book. Otherwise, I say avoid it. If you’re like me and you enjoy these authors then just get their actual books. The book however is for a good cause. Nick Hornby compiled the book to benefit a school for autistic children in London. A dollar for every book goes directly to the school. Get the book for no other reason than that.