Sunday, August 16, 2009

15 books in more than 15 minutes (Part Two)

I'm in the midst of revealing the thinking behind the selection of fifteen books that shaped my life. In my first installment, I covered five memorable books from my childhood. This time I'll be looking at five books (or multi-book series) that were a big part of my teenaged and young adult years.

6. Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball, by Paul Zindel: I don't want people to get the idea—perfectly reasonable, from looking at my prior list—that I read nothing but fantasy when I was growing up. I read everything, from historicals to school stories, and spent much of the ages of 13 to 15 going through a stage where I read all the horror I could get my hands on. I also read a lot of "young adult," which was a relatively new field when I was a kid. Paul Zindel, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, was a pioneer in this field. His most famous work in the genre was The Pigman, which is now often taught in high school English classes. (Much to my horror; I think a book that should be read for fun should never become a required subject for dissection.) My personal Zindel favorite, however, was this book. Not only did it have the wacky title, it had the wacky characters: "Marsh" Mellow and Edna Shinglebox, two teen outsiders who find better therapy in friendship than from school-sponsored efforts pushed on them by their overbearing mothers. Since I haven't read this since I was in high school, a lot of the plot details are fuzzy; what I do remember is the feeling of deep satisfaction every time I read it and saw the weirdos (even weirder than me!) finding friendship. I'm thinking I should re-read this and see what I think of it twenty years later.

7. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson: This is the first truly adult fantasy series I read, back when I was in high school. This three volume series, consisting of Lord Foul's Bane, The Illearth War, and The Power That Preserves, stretched both my vocabulary and my concept of "heroic" fantasy. The title character is a writer who suffers from leprosy who finds himself transported to a fantastic land. He finds he is no longer afflicted with nerve damage, and one of his first acts after arriving is to rape a young woman who befriends him. He then spends the next three books saving the Land from evil despite his insistence that it is not real and his power is all an illusion. This is Epic fantasy with a capital E, with complicated characters, beautiful (and complex) language, and fully realized world building. There is an equally fine Second Chronicles, finished in 1983, and Donaldson is in the middle of a four-volume Last Chronicles, which I refuse to start until the last volume is out, sometime around 2013. In the meantime, I've fallen more in love with Donaldson's twisty political fantasy set of The Mirror of Her Dreams/A Man Rides Through, but the Covenant series is the one that marks my teen years the most. (Roger Zelazny's "Amber" series is a very very close second.)

8. Legends of Camber of Culdi, by Katherine Kurtz: This is another trilogy (Camber of Culdi, Saint Camber, Camber the Heretic), the second that author Kurtz set in her world of the Deryni, a fictional version of the British Isles in the middle ages. The Deryni are very like humans except they have magical abilities that very much resemble certain psychic powers, including telekinesis, healing, and mind-reading, among others. The first of Kurtz's trilogies is set in the twelfth century, as the Deryni begin to come back from two centuries of brutal repression by church and state. For my money, this second series, which recounts how the Deryni Camber went from praised saint to excoriated heretic in the tenth century, is a much more interesting read. What I love about all the Deryni books is how the magic isn't the be-all and end-all; it doesn't serve as a deus ex machina to provide characters with a magical solution to their problems. Instead, we see how politics, both temporal and religious, can overcome all the magical talent in the world. The endings can be a bit dark—indeed, it's almost a joke when reading later Kurtz series that your favorite characters are destined to die horribly—but it just makes the plots feel even more real. To give you an idea of how much I loved these books when I was a teen, I seriously considered looking into a medieval studies major while I was in college, as a means of preparing myself to write something similar.

9. The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford: Oh, right, I read lot of "literature" while I was getting that English degree. This book grabbed me the most; although it was one of many books I read during a near-throwaway "Modern Novel" summer class, it stuck with me so much that I made it the subject of my senior thesis. On the surface, this 1915 novel doesn't seem like that captivating: an expatriate American couple meets a British couple in pre-WWI Germany, where the British husband (the title upstanding soldier) and American wife conduct an affair over the course of several summers. Oh, infidelity among the upper classes, how trite, you might think. And sure, the story itself isn't particularly compelling, but what fascinates me about the novel is the way in which it's told. The American husband, John Dowell, tells the story in retrospect, and his re-interpretation of events to make himself look better after the fact is quite delusional—and quite entertaining. Here's an example: "If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did." Of course, it's quite obvious that Dowell is fooling himself. I love reading books with delusional narrators (Wuthering Heights is another favorite), and I didn't mind burying myself in this book for months to analyze it to death.

10. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card: I picked up this book to take a little break from studying for my GREs (graduate school entrance exams, and no, I didn't go to graduate school, I was just considering my options), thinking I could read a couple of chapters and go back to studying. Big mistake. I started into this story of a six-year-old genius who is sent to a space military school and couldn't put it down. Oh, another loner in school story, big whoop, you may think, I've read that tons of times. Well, succeeding in this school may be the difference between humanity being wiped out by insectoid aliens or not, and Ender, while able to solve problems of tactics and strategy, is less confident when it comes to dealing with people and emotions. The novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as did its sequel, Speaker for the Dead. Speaker may be the better, deeper novel, but Ender's straightforward story and fast pace make it more compelling. Perhaps. In any case, reading this novel set me on a course of reading tons of hard sci fi, rather than just fantasy, a habit I still maintain today.

So that's it for this installment, which takes me to my mid- to late-twenties. In my next one I'll cover some of my more "grown-up" favorites.

1 comment:

  1. Medieval majors ROCK!! I'll get back to you when I actually use anything I learned though :)

    My late teens and early twenties where focused around two authors, Michael Crichton and none other than Ms Rowling herself.