Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Book Talk

OK, I said a few days ago that I was going to talk about books, right? So let's talk about books.

I'm currently reading Stephen King's Thinner. It's making me hungry. I find this fact kind of disturbing. I also find it noteworthy that the only thing that's made my suspension of disbelief snap so far was an offhand mention of the protagonist's daughter going off to a Dungeons and Dragons game. OK, sure, gypsy curses that make you lose weight, fine, but a cheerleader playing D&D? Puh-leez! That aside, it's not bad so far, but I'm only on pg. 38.

Most recently completed book was Doctor Who and the Masque of Mandragora by Philip Hinchcliffe, which, in the grand tradition of Terrance Dicks's Who novelizations, reads like it was written about an hour and a half. And I remembered the plot of that episode being more interesting, somehow. But apparently I have not remembered how to pronounce "Mandragora," which is driving me crazy.

Before that was The Beginning Place by Ursula K. Le Guin, which was really interesting to read. The title seemed vaguely familiar, which led me to think that maybe I'd read it before, sometime in my childhood. And the more I read of it, the more convinced I was that I had, because it felt, eerily, hauntingly familiar. Eventually I encountered a phrase I remembered almost exactly and became certain of it. What's interesting is that I couldn't have been more than about eleven when I first read the thing, but even if I'd forgotten the title and the author and the plot, the experience of reading it is still vividly lodged in my mind, because it was one of the very first books I read that had sex in it, and I found the experience really uncomfortable. Now, the sexual content, as it happens, is very, very mild and not at all explicit, but I think it was the style as much as the content that got to me. Because Le Guin really does write prose that's capable of worming its way down into your hindbrain and doing strange things to your subconscious, and combining that with a sexual undercurrent is a pretty sure way to discomfit an eleven-year-old. (Of course, a few years later I was reading Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison, so, hey, I got over that pretty quick. But, still.) I could have sworn that I actually failed to finish the book, but some of the stuff I remembered was towards the very end, so if I did abandon it, it must have been with only a few pages to go. My strongest memory is thinking that that book really shouldn't have been in the kids' section... though, thinking back on it now, the problem was that they only had one section to serve everyone from the just-graduated-from-picture-books crowd through the teenage set. (Not that there weren't any inappropriately shelved books in that library. Note to librarians: Not everything Roald Dahl wrote is aimed at kids. Thank you.)

Let that, by the way, serve as an anecdotal refutation to the claim that kids will indiscriminately devour anything they find in front of them without having enough good judgment to know whether it's something they're ready for or not. I've heard it said that kids are their own best censors, and I believe that. If, as a kid, I picked up a book or watched a movie and it had stuff that made me uncomfortable, because it was sexy or gory or whatever, I'd shy away from it. Unless, of course, an adult told me I was too young for it, in which case it became a point of pride to prove that I could handle it. Thus it is that my mother is directly responsible for my actually finishing Heinlein's To Sail Beyond the Sunset at the age of about 13, despite the fact that it was a) deeply filthy, and b) not any good. If she hadn't forbade me to read it, I probably would have put it down at about page ten. Ah, well. I turned out OK, anyway. Mostly.

To get back to Le Guin, though, reading The Beginning Place this time was interesting not just for the deja vu experience, but also because it's a really strange book. It doesn't actually make any sense in simple dramatic terms: mysteries are set up that are never followed through on, characters make sudden emotional turns for no obvious reason, etc., etc. Everything is the way it is, and happens the way it happens, as far as I can tell, not because it has internal logic in a story world, but because it's symbolic. I might even go so far as to say allegorical. Now I generally hate that sort of thing: not symbolism or allegory per se, but symbolism and allegory when they trump logic and realism, most definitely. But Le Guin gets away with it and manages (mostly) to get me to come away with the feeling that the symbolic stuff is a level of truth revealed by the story and not one imposed on top of it. If that makes any sense at all. It's bizarre, and fascinating, and kind of maddening. I don't know whether, as an adult, I enjoyed the story all that much, but I am impressed with Le Guin for writing it, if only because I think it takes some pretty nifty chutzpah to believe you can pull a thing like that off. (I will say, though, that overall I prefer the Earthsea books, which manage to work extremely well as a traditional narrative and as a symbolic Jungian sort of thing simultaneously.)

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