Catcher In The Rye – Salinger

The classic high school students’ novel, right? I admit I avoided reading Catcher In The Rye for many decades. Now, having finally given in, I get some of why this book is so widely read. Catcher In The Rye lives and dies by its narrative voice. Holden Caulfield sounds like, acts like, thinks like a teenager. He’s annoying, in fact. But the authenticity of the voice carries us past that, creating an interest in what he will confront next, and how he will react. To some extent, anyway.

Is this enough to keep a reader going? Evidently, if the reader is young enough. Didn’t really work for me, though. The whole lack of a goal, no overarching conflict, those little failings weakened the story for me. By quite a bit, actually. It’s a book of incidents, and not terribly interesting ones at that.

The language that was so archly precise back in the 1940’s, when this came out, now feels awkward. Not inauthentic, but off-putting. Maybe the long history we have by now of clumsy anti-heroes has lessened the impact of this work. Surely it was seminal, surely it was shocking in its time.

But this is a good warning to any writer: shock, yes. But there must be more under that shock, some larger epiphanies in store for the reader, or the work ultimately will lose its grip. Become a museum piece, which is how I would rate this story at this point.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

The Little Prince – Saint-Exupery

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Stowe

The Other One (La Seconde) – Colette

 

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The Little Prince – Saint-Exupery

I was reading on Twitter today that the underlying theme, the big point of a story should always be referenced in the first few pages of a book. Well, maybe. But I know of few books where the big epiphanies are so central to the story as in The Little Prince, and they come later in the story. Yes, there’s the bit with the snake, and the idea we can only return to our star through death. Yes, there are the various inhabitants of the stars that the little prince meets, and the revelation of how small and limited, and ultimately even insane those men are (they are all men). Is that because they are alone, without interactions — needed and necessary interactions — with other people? With women, even? We are prodded to consider the thought.

But ultimately so much of what I, at least, have taken away from The Little Prince is in his interchanges with the fox. “What does tamed mean?” “…to create ties… if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…. and then, look! You see the wheat fields…? Wheat fields say nothing to me. Which is sad. But you have hair the color of gold… the wheat… will remind me of you.” That is, life has meaning, and the things of this world only have meaning, insofar as we have relationships that imbue them with meaning. Heady stuff for a little kid, back in the day.

Then of course, being a powerful book, there is another message given here, again by the fox: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

When I think about it, I see those two messages as related. There is a progression of epiphanies here. And that doesn’t happen in very many books that I can think of.

Then of course, this being a classic, there is yet a third epiphany. “‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ the little prince said, ‘is that it hides a well somewhere.’… I was surprised by suddenly understanding that mysterious radiance of the sands. When I was a … boy I lived in an old house, and there was a legend that a treasure was buried in it… it cast a spell over that whole house. My house hid a secret…”

That magic is imparted by mystery, that beauty arises from mystery, those are concepts that have affected me, mostly without my quite realizing it, all my life. That’s what a great book can give us. That’s why we keep reading. The radiant mysteries hidden inside books.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

The Wind In The Willows – Grahame

The Last Unicorn – Beagle

The Fall Of Gondolin – Tolkien

 

The Wind In The Willows – Grahame

Toad is such a toad. The Wind in the Willows shows that we can follow a repellent character with fascination, if we have other touchstones in the book to love and root for  — Mole and the Water Rat are actually quite sweet characters. I don’t know that I wish for Toad to get his comeuppance here as much as I hope he’ll change, and wince when he doesn’t, and then pays the consequences. Does he ever change, really? I leave it to you to decide.

Another huge draw with this book is the bucolic setting. An England that never was, idealized and fantastical, lures us in. And the moments of wistful magic, apart from the talking animals, resonate and reinforce our love of this world. The moment where Rat meets a sort of doppelganger of himself, opening vistas of what other worlds he could have chosen, creates a depth and mystery essential to creating a magical world, I think. The mysterious being that saves the lost child, the dangerous creates in the Wild Wood… There are and will always be strange little corners of this world just out of sight, calling to us. It’s a comfort they are there.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

The Last Unicorn – Beagle

The Fall Of Gondolin – Tolkien

The Old Ways – MacFarlane

 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Stowe

Let’s talk villains. I would argue that a good villain drives readership like little else. Yes, we need a sympathetic hero seeking a worthwhile goal for most breakout novels (think Harry Potter), but your Snidely Whiplash, your Boris and Natasha, well, people just focus on them. And few names resonate more than Simon Legree, the bullet-headed villain in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This is one of the greatest novels ever written, and I wonder if it may be the most underestimated. Stowe does a breathtaking job of driving plot and conflict, right from the first chapter. She builds sympathy, puts her characters in terrible situations, and gives them heart-rending choices. It’s worth studying for those reasons. But villains can be hard to make real, and she is especially strong here.

Legree is introduced thus, at a slave auction: “a short, broad, muscular man, in a checked shirt considerably open at the bosom, and pantaloons much the worse for dirt and wear, elbowed his way through the crowd… coming up to the group, began to examine them systematically.” You know from the first that he’s unpleasant, and the way Tom reacts to him gives the reader even more of a clue: “(Tom) felt an immediate and revolting horror at him, that increased as he came near… his large, coarse mouth was distended with tobacco.” He mistreats the women (for a novel written in more genteel times, there are no punches pulled), and sneers at the men. Tom has some few personal items when he is bought. Legree immediately sells them for his own profit, and to show Tom his place. The reader is left with a helpless rage, a horror that this was how it worked, and a deepening fear for the hero. Legree won’t let his slaves have religion. He tells Tom, “I’m your church now… you’ve got to be as I say.” Then he boasts to a stranger how hard he is, and how he gets the most from his slaves that way. As he takes his new slaves to his plantation, he forces them to sing something rowdy. “and was well-pleased. He was making them ‘keep up their spirits.'” He is deaf to the spiritual: “There was a prayer in (the song) which Simon could not hear.” With every new characteristic revealed, we hate the guy more.

Stowe has a brilliant eye for character: “Legree had been drinking to the degree that he was inclined to be very gracious.” We’ve all met drunks like that. Legree lets his plantation get run down, only caring about work that will make him money. He manipulates his two slave assistants, playing them off each other, rewarding them for being cruel to the other slaves, roping them into his evil ways, rewarding them for telling on each other. Such attention to the character’s detail is amazing. But even more, Legree is a jealous man, who cannot bear Tom’s spiritual strength. So he tries to make Tom complicit in his evil, ordering him to flog another slave. When Tom won’t, Legree nearly goes mad.

That, it seems to me, is the way to reveal an evil character. Show his various facets, show how he treats others, then show his weaknesses, and how other characters fight back.

I’ve read now, by my count, over 250 classic novels. Of those, this book is now in my top 10 all time. The story weakened a little right at the end, but its overall power ultimately made that irrelevant. This is as good as writing gets. Messy, clear-eyed, and tough. It cries out to be made into an opera (or three).

The book, as Lincoln said, that started the Civil War. Reading it, I can see why.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

The Song Of The Lark – Cather

Barchester Towers – Trollope

Animal Farm – Orwell

The Last Unicorn – Beagle

The Last Unicorn is generally considered one of the classic novels in the fantasy fiction universe. I had never read it, not having ever been hooked by its opening. But I did plow through it this time, and I have to say, it’s pretty good. I think the greatest strength of the writing is the laying in of emotions in every paragraph, nearly every sentence. Just taken at random, Ch 5 starts: “All that Schmendrick remembered… of his wild ride with the outlaws was the wind… and the laughter of the jingling giant. He was too busy brooding over the ending of his hat trick…” The amusing language and the emotions layered in constitute the great strength of this book. We read for the fun, and we read in empathy with the characters. A nice trick.

The story is not deep and complex: the last unicorn wonders where all the other unicorns have gone, and goes to find them. Magical difficulties ensue. The tone is not particularly consistent: we are to worry for the heroes, but much of the story is too goofy to take seriously. But it is still a good read. The problems the heroes are to solve are just original and interesting enough, and the characterization is just broad and deep enough, that we want to know what happens. There are enough insights to keep us satisfied that this story is worth the effort, and the pacing is good. We don’t dwell too long in any dilemma. Something new is always coming along. For fans of light-hearted, high fantasy, this is a good book.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

The Fall Of Gondolin – Tolkien

Nine Princes In Amber – Zelazny

The Color Of Magic – Pratchett

The Fall Of Gondolin – Tolkien

The structure of The Fall Of Gondolin, I was thinking to myself, is really quite radical. As J.R.R. Tolkien worked on this story, he wrote multiple drafts over many decades. Some little more than fragments. What this book does is present those fragments, with commentary, one after the other. Which leads us to a bit of a Rashomon moment, as the same story is told in different ways, with different emphases, though always from the p.o.v. of the narrator, not of differing characters. The result is that the reader noses through the various versions looking for scraps of difference, and (guided by Christopher Tolkien, the editor) trying to imagine what this story would have been if presented in a single narration. Not a usual experience with fiction.

And probably only of great interest for those who have followed the world of Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings itself, through The Silmarillion, The Book Of Lost Tales and onwards. But I liked it, and I would imagine many others will as well.

This is mosaic fiction, uncovering little bits, setting them side by side, and seeing the larger effect. Finding tiny discoveries. Here is the story of Glorfindel, who died fighting a Balrog, and (maybe?) was reborn to reappear ages later, in Lord of the Rings. Here is Elrond as a child (okay, not much there). Here even is a brief discussion of ents.

But finally, this book fills out the legend in one more way, deepening and making more satisfactory the whole world Tolkien created. For that, we don’t need a hard narrative. Names can shift. It’s like peering at a story from the ancient past, after all, when rumor may have more truth than plainly stated fact.

A wonderful book for Tolkien trivia nuts like me.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

Voyage of Mael Duin’s Curragh – Aakhus

Nine Princes In Amber – Zelazny

Lord Of The Rings – Tolkien

 

The Color Of Magic – Pratchett

I suspect I am not going to win myself many new followers in saying this, but I just don’t find Pratchett’s humor much appealing. The Color Of Magic is his first Discworld novel; it’s fast-paced, well-written, and has sharply drawn, interesting characters… I get all that. It’s easy to see why so many people like his work. All I can plead is humor is a mysterious business. What’s weirder is that I see many close parallels to Douglas Adams, whose work I DO like (i.e. laugh at). Does Pratchett’s work get better in later books, as he grows more skilled? I appeal to other readers for their position on that. Other books of his I’ve opened up have not drawn me in either, though.

The Color Of Money does press the right buttons for humor: insane things happen, fools reign supreme, the language is punchy: “The twin city of proud Ankh and pestilent Morpork, of which all… other cities… are, as it were, mere reflections.” Crazy situations are set up, played for humor, and resolved with a thump. People love what he does, and with obvious reason. So why don’t I laugh? Something in humor, I think, has to ground in reality for the reader. And all of us have different experiences. Pratchett reaches a deep ground with most readers, but not with all of us. And maybe that’s the takeaway here. No one, literally no one, can appeal to everyone. As a writer, or in any profession, you can’t expect everyone to like you, or what you do. You will find critics, you will find people giving you poor reviews. Best not to take it personally, because it’s a universal truth. If you get NO good reviews, well that might be a bit more concerning. ;->

I recall an editor that always looked more deeply at any stories that his first readers despised. If any other reader rose up in favor of that same story (and more often than you’d think, someone would) THAT was the story he wanted. Something that stirred the reader, one way or the other. It was the bland work he avoided.

There’s nothing bland about The Color of Magic. There’s all the flavor in the world here. So who knows? If you try it, you may love it as much as his other millions of fans do. I’m a deep believer in the idea that there’s room enough for us all, under the large tent of literature. This one is just not to my taste.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

Nine Princes In Amber – Zelazny

Brief Cases – Butcher

The Inimitable Jeeves – Wodehouse

Nine Princes In Amber – Zelazny

Nine Princes in Amber has one of the best chapter one hooks I’ve ever read. The hero awakens in a hospital bed, and slowly realizes that he has been there for a while, and every time he wakes up, someone jabs him with a needle. “Now, though, I was feeling halfway decent. They’d have to stop. / Wouldn’t they?… Maybe not.”

The hero remembers he was in a car accident, and hit his head. The nurse comes in to give him another shot. He refuses it. He wonders who is paying for his hospitalization, then realizes he has no idea what his own name is. A thug comes in to force the shot on him… and we are off and running and well and truly hooked. A man with lots of problems, bad guys after him, and amnesia. Oh, and he heals inhumanly quickly, our first intimation that this is a fantasy story.

Would that all fantasies got up and running as quickly as this, and set up our sympathies with the hero so briskly. This is the book that made me fall in love with Zelazny’s writing, and I suspect I’ve read pretty much all his work at this point. To me, that’s how powerful a good opening can be. When a writer does the first scene in the first book of her or her series this skillfully, it bodes well for everyone involved.

Zelazny wrote many other books in the Amber series; he did a first series, then kept adding new books as years went by, but for me, this was his best. This book sets out the framework and conceits of the series, the alternate worlds, the powers of the heroes and villains, the intertwined family. It gives us a rousing adventure, and a satisfying ending.

If you haven’t read Nine Princes In Amber yet, I very much recommend it.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

The Eye of the World – Jordan

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – Jemison

Children Of Earth And Sky – Kay

 

The Eye of the World – Jordan

As the opening book of a tremendously successful (and long) series, The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan, gives a great example of how to hook lots of readers fast and well. One could almost argue Jordan gives us three openings. The Prologue starts, “The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.” Right away, we know something huge and momentous has happened, and that it was negative in a big way. But Jordan does not immediately tell us what just happened, giving a little mystery to draw us along. There is emotion, with the words ‘rumbled,’ ‘groaned,’ and ‘would deny.’ In the third sentence here, “Scorch-marks marred the walls…” we are given the hint of a deadly struggle, as well as a specific location. Very slick writing. In short order we learn a man created this destruction, “the Dragon.” When that short scene is done, the book quotes a prophecy that the Dragon will ride again on the winds of time. And so the Prologue ends, and now we know a big struggle is coming in this story. All very intriguing for a fantasy reader.

The second beginning opens Chapter 1: “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass…” in this opening we get a sense of vast time, a huge stage on which the forthcoming tale shall be told. “In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past…” So the struggle is part of an eternal contest of wills, we suspect. This opening is repeated with variations in every book in the series, giving a needed sense of continuity.

The third beginning, which comes in the second paragraph of the first chapter, moves us into the very specific: “the wind blew east…and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn path called the Quarry Road.” Now the reader is invited into to empathize with specific individuals. Having two people rather than one gives the potential for conflict and alliance, and as the road has a specific name, a local name, so we are drawn into the life of a small hamlet. The men are commoners, hard-working, not wealthy, earning a bit of our sympathy, just enough to keep us reading. The wind has a hint of being out of time. Something is faintly wrong in the world. Hooks for the reader pile up. We have danger, a boy who wants to warn his father, which brings out loyalty and kindness, and then, with the boy’s urge for no reason to nock an arrow against some unseen danger, eeriness.

Beautifully done, and millions of readers have followed that lure.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

The Poetic Edda

Voyage of Mael Duin’s Curragh – Aakhus

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – Jemison

The Poetic Edda

I’m discussing The Poetic Edda on my fiction blog rather than my poetry blog kind of arbitrarily, but I’m interested in the way these stories impact my fiction writing. They are part of the heart and soul of Northern European story-telling traditions, and impacted everyone from Tolkien to Morris. My translation was by Carolyne Larrington, who has made the fragmentation and confusion clear and straightforward, or else explained why she could not.

These stories have a raw thunder hard to mimic. They explain little… perhaps assuming their listeners knew their background… and that contributes to their impact. Very few of the characters are particularly sympathetic; they are more people (and gods, if that’s what the Aesir are) making their way through a harsh world as best they can. Here are elves, dwarves, humans, giants and trolls in their original context, competing, cheating, always looking for an advantage. That elves may have originally been ancestral spirits was a new thought to me; that giants and dwarves shift one into the other, often more impulse or archetype than creature was also a bit of a surprise.

One can compare and contrast stories between here and the Prose Edda… evidently Snorri Sturluson used these tales as source documents, getting a different approach. The Prose Edda are smoother and more cohesive, whereas these stories can contradict themselves, even within the same Song, Lay, or Saying. There is also a different approach to the tales taken in the Volsungsa Saga and the Niebelungenlied, if my memory serves me (this seems to be borne out by the notes Larrington contributes). Whether pieces of the story were added in those other places, or lost from the Poetic Edda is beyond me, but it’s interesting to have all that jostling of ideas, the different takes and traditions to examine, trying to triangulate even further into the past, perhaps.

My favorite trick in here are the kennings: poetic descriptions of people and things laid into the tale here and there. For instance, ‘the ship of the bit’ is a horse, according to Larrington. ‘Heath-wanderer’ is a wolf. Swords, gold and people have many different kennings (one kenning for gold – serpent’s flame, because dragons like to bask on heaps of flame). You could go on all day making these things up, and obviously that’s just what the bards used to do, back in the day. I found this enjoyable and illuminating.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blogs:

Voyage of Mael Duin’s Curragh – Aakhus

The Old Ways – MacFarlane

The Wood Beyond The World – Morris