Category Archives: Misc. Books

Out of the Silent Planet Awoke My Imagination – Let It Awake Yours Too

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I’ve been meaning to read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis for a long time, ever since I discovered Lewis really did write fiction besides the Chronicles of Narnia. Now that I have I can’t resist blogging about it, because it excited me so much to find out how good it was. I rarely review books here, but some books are worth it, and if you’ve been looking for a worthwhile book I’ll write down some things to consider with this one.

Out of the Silent Planet always sounded like such an intriguing title, but I probably haven’t touched it till now because it’s sci-fi. Also, you hear so much less about it than the Chronicles, so you assume it can’t be quite as highly regarded. And after a brief survey of the internet writings on it, I think opinion on this book is a little more divided. But those who love it really love it, and now I’m one of them.

Basically, in this book a professor, Elwin Ransom, gets kidnapped and taken to another planet, Malacandra. The book actually has many reasons to inspire dislike, or a more tepid reception, including its out-of-date science and scientific errors, its theological ideas sprinkled throughout, and some weaknesses in story construction. I’ll first list all the irritations and dislikes I had while reading (skipping over any scientific discussion, as I know very little about scientific beliefs at the time), and then I’ll explain what blew me away.

I shall attempt to talk about it without spoiling too much of it, and obviously will not bring in any of the rest of the trilogy, since I haven’t read them yet.

The Bad:

It was incredibly difficult to get into the story. There is nothing especially compelling about Ransom as a character—you don’t start chapter one and immediately get excited you get to follow this character for the rest of the story. I picked it up several times without making it through the first chapter. I ended it without a real strong idea of what the guy was like. You don’t get any sense of his life outside the events of the story. Is he motivated to escape Malacandra and get back to his life as a professor on earth? Does he have any human relationships he’s missing? What brought him to the point where he decided to take a walking tour? He doesn’t seem to have any internal struggles, other than the small character arc of overcoming his fear-based response to everything.

The rest of the characters are somewhat caricatures too. There’s a scientist whose sole focus is human progress, and whose speeches mainly consist of his ideas of human progress. There’s another bad guy who’s solely driven by greed. There’s a lot of ‘good’ characters who don’t change throughout the novel, because they’re good already.

Yes, there were a few points where I was reading it that I thought to myself—can this really be C.S. Lewis? This is a very poorly constructed novel! People must just read it out of loyalty to him!

On top of the rest of these flaws take the very limited and slow amount of action this novel contains. There’s certainly conflict—why was Ransom kidnapped? Can he escape? Can he find food and drink on this new planet? Etc., etc. But most issues just sort of resolve themselves without Ransom having to fight too much for them. The climax, in the worst light, could be seen as everything in the story just easily resolving themselves.

 

The Good:

The first part where I suddenly found myself being drawn into the story was during Ransom’s philosophizing on the spaceship during the journey to Malacandra. And I HATE philosophy, so it’s shocking for me to say the philosophy in this book are some of the best parts of the story. But it’s true.

These parts are written very beautifully, which is no surprise considering Lewis was a very adept writer. They confront our stereotypical ideas of space travel and ever so subtly turn them inside-out. Is space empty? Are aliens inferior to humans? Are aliens hostile to humans? What do you think?

About halfway through I would have described it as an excellent philosophical treatise with a story tacked on. But the plot kept turning, and despite the characters being somewhat motivation-less and wooden, there were several emotional moments that absolutely hit home. I was surprised to discover I really did care about what happened to them.

There’s some incredible descriptions in here as well. Lewis does what many authors forget to do (in the books I’ve read, anyway), and grounds his perspective in his character so deeply that the reader sees what the character sees. For example, when getting off the spaceship Ransom is initially unsure which colours are ground, which as water, which are trees, etc. Which is absolutely true—if you don’t have any context for figuring out a new location, you are confused at first! Just think about getting out of a different subway station and being completely unsure which street is which. Lewis also does not immediately have Ransom realize the spaceship he travels to Malacandra in is shaped like a sphere–he first describes the odd shape of the room from Ransom’s perspective, and the slow realization that the shape is due to the spaceship’s overall spherical shape. Few authors do this–they immediately have the characters perceive they’re on another planet and describe it, or on a spaceship and describe it, without exploring the process of realization that occurs in a character’s head. There’s more than one passage like this, and these ground the story in reality in a strong way.

So, after good philosophy and unique descriptions, this book also hinges on languages in a way that excites me as a person who loves words. Ransom does not have a ‘universal translator,’ but actually has to learn the alien language. Then he has to translate some ‘Earth’ ideas into this alien language, which is an ever-so-subtle device to explore some of the ideas we take for granted. It’s lovely, lovely. You’d never see this in a blockbuster movie, but it drives the action in such a different way than you’d expect.

Lastly, this book made me realize how long it’s been since I read a book that really thrilled my imagination. I didn’t think C.S. Lewis could pull it off and really bring the story together in a satisfying way, because I’ve gotten so good at predicting with the first few chapters of a novel how bad the novel is going to be. I’ve also had far too many promising novels fade away into gibberish and frustration. It’s so wonderful to discover you’re actually in the hand of an author you can trust–an author who writes well and plots well and will not disappoint you even in a story with weaknesses. My imagination was so fired up this week, and it was a shock to discover I’d forgotten what that felt like.

In Conclusion:

What is really interesting about super-good books, and the one thing I love about them, is how so many of them do not follow the advice writers are constantly being given today. I can’t imagine any publisher publishing this book nowadays. It starts off soooooooooooo slow—just a guy walking through the back lanes of England. It has such wooden characters, characters without real character arcs. It takes sooooooooo long for any sort of action to occur, and the action that does occur fails to create much suspense. Why would a publisher take it on?

But yet—you care about these wooden characters! Somehow by the middle the shocking thing that happens affects you emotionally. You even feel pity and some sympathy for the bad guys at the end. And the climax and ending is somehow satisfying, even though a reader could so easily feel cheated if these events were not well-written.

I think, despite the good behind teaching writers how to better their craft, we sometimes risk making all writing exactly the same. We could be overlooking the next C.S. Lewis by insisting on being dropped into the middle of the action. And I do not say this under any delusions that I am the next C.S. Lewis who should not be ignored, because I know there’s so much about character and plot that I need to keep on learning about until the end of the my writing days. But stories can somehow, some way, work without these things. Our confidence in our knowledge about what is ‘good’ storytelling may be far too similar to our confidence in the progress of history and the idea we’re superior to civilizations that have come before us. We’re missing the context. We unknowingly blind ourselves to what they can teach us.

However, to conclude this review–Out of the Silent Planet will likely not change anyone’s mind about C.S. Lewis. If you dislike his philosophizing and general outlook on life, you won’t find this book any different. If you dislike his neat and logical prose, you’ll find that here as well. Even if you love C.S. Lewis because of the Chronicles of Narnia, you may find this one a little ‘weirder.’ But if you love inventive settings that inspire you to think about the world in new ways, give this one a shot. It’s worth it.

 

 

Have you read Out of the Silent Planet, and if so, what did you think?

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Misc. Books, Randoms & My Life, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

A Few Classics That Are Not Hard to Read

Classics are usually heavy reading. Even if they’re short, the language is unfamiliar enough that they take a long time to get through. But every once in a while you find one that surprises you, and here are three that surprised me.

Note: I’m not including any classics described as ‘children’s literature’ in this list.

'Around the World in Eighty Days' by Neuville and Benett 22
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

I just really enjoyed the very punctual and methodical Phileas Fogg racing around the world with his comic French servant, Passepartout. They get into preposterous adventures of all sorts, some of which strain believability but are incredibly fun to read. It gives a wonderful picture of travel before airplanes were invented, with railroads and steamboats. Verne is known as a science fiction author, but this was a contemporary novel for him—and so for us it’s a nice view in on the past. Also, I loved the sudden revelation of Fogg’s tender side in the end.

As a side note, Jules Verne’s novels have historically received poor English translations, which led him to have a higher reputation in his native France than in the English-speaking world. This is the only sample of his work I’ve read, but I quite enjoyed him. In addition, I’ve noticed publishers give this novel nonsensical cover pages – one edition had a hot air balloon, but hot air balloons failed to appear in the story. Another recent edition has a daredevil racing in an old-fashioned car, but this does not happen in the novel either.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

This remains the only Dickens novel I’ve read cover to cover. It’s short, so Dickens’ verbosity won’t put you off. The plot is easy enough to follow. I actually read it because I knew nothing about the plot and wanted to find out what this Christmas carol business everyone always went on about at Christmastime was all about, but I’ve reread it since without boredom. I’ve heard complaints about the opening paragraphs, where Dickens goes on about different types of nails and why the doornail should not be considered the ‘deadest’ type of nail out there, but personally I found it humorous. If you find it tedious, it’s a short novel, so it’s soon over and the rest of the plot begins!

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This was my introduction to Jane Austen, and I still believe it’s the easiest one to start with (though none of her novels are too difficult for the modern reader, aside from the formality of the language). This novel gets right into the action and humor, with Mr. Bingley arriving in town and Mrs. Bennett nagging her husband to go meet him. It does not start with family history, like Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. The heroine is lively enough that it’s not a chore to follow her through the story, and the story is shorter than Emma. There’s a few lulls in action, but overall it’s a very satisfying romance and shows off Austen’s talent very well.

 

 

These are my recommendations—your mileage may vary! After all, I thought Lord of the Rings and The Iliad were surprisingly easy to get into, and I know many people who didn’t. And I just struggle with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, while others just love them. But if you’re meaning to read a few novels that have stood the test of time, these are a few places to start!

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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Jane Austen, Misc. Books

When a Hurricane of Clichés Equals a Great Movie

Today, I’m going to talk about Casablanca. If you want to know more about why I care about Casablanca, check out my previous post, ‘Writing Reality – Or Escaping It‘.

quotables button“Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology… And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making…Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, and “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”)

For years, filmmakers hungered to know what made Casablanca a classic. If they could just crack the formula – figure out what made people instantly love it so much – they could crank out sure-fire hits over and over. After all, on the surface, there’s not much to recommend Casablanca above your average movie. It’s a very clichéd plot – a love triangle, a sacrifice, a clear antagonist, a damsel in distress. The characters are walking stereotypes. The character arcs have all been done a thousand times before (even in 1942, when this movie was made).

If there was a key to filmmaking—or writing in general, which is what I care about most of all—wouldn’t that be nice? A magic key unlocking the secrets of what makes stories work? But there isn’t. There’s no magic key – only magic. The magic that happens when, in this case, the right combination of actors, characterization, plot and tired clichés combine.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed Casablanca. You’d think by now, seventy or so years after its release, the plot would’ve been spoiled for me. It should be like those people who watched the Lord of the Rings movies and wondered why it used every fantasy stereotype in the book, when it reality it’s merely because Lord of the Rings INVENTED those stereotypes (except in this case it’s romance stereotypes, and Casablanca didn’t invent them but merely inspired the continual recycling of these old tropes). I saw the end coming from a mile away. Also, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve picked up something everyone told me was a classic, and hated it (see Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights).

However, I did love it. Like I said, there was magic.

And I love the quote I pasted above, because it shows how conventional wisdom about stories falls short – how in this particular case not an avoidance of clichés but a hurricane of clichés is what makes the movie. Casablanca breaks an accepted, basic rule of stories. But then again, every piece of true art is flawed.

Will lightning strike again if you use a hurricane of clichés? Or is Casablanca merely lightning in a bottle? There’s no way to say, except that creating art involves risk-taking and bravery. Sometimes that means breaking new ground. And sometimes that means risking doing what everyone else tells you is overdone.

The genius comes in telling what situation calls for which.

And if your striving eventually comes up with a story that works – a story that speaks to something inside humanity, and satisfies something in our cores – well, then your work has been touched by that magic.

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Filed under Misc. Books, On Writing, Quotables

Peck Out Her Eyes, She Deserves It!

Vindictiveness in Fiction

'Just Desserts,' by Paulina Smit. Creative Commons.

‘Just Desserts,’ by Paulina Smit. Creative Commons.

Some versions of Cinderella end with her ordering her bird-friends to peck out her stepsisters’ eyes. Yes, the sweet, lovely Cinderella whom we all heard about as a kid – though clearly not the Disney version. Apparently she decided to take revenge and punish her sisters by blinding them in the most gruesome way she could think of. Or, in other versions of the story, exiling them to the wilderness, or forcing them to be slaves.

 I always preferred the endings where she invites her stepsisters and stepmother to live in the castle instead, and teaches them how to be gracious. After all, Cinderella is supposed to be better than them, and if she resorts to petty vindictiveness to punish them, how is she better than her stepsisters, who mistreated her because she was prettier than them?

(See my version of Cinderella, Prince Charming, to see what I think about the character of the prince!)

 I always wanted to think if anyone could be outstandingly forgiving, it was Cinderella. And I always wanted to think the stepsisters learned to be better people after what happened. Maybe I’m just an optimist about humanity.

 But, strangely enough, vindictiveness is a strong theme in many works of fiction. I mean, take The Count of Monte Cristo. This is a book completely centred around a man taking revenge, it is regarded as a true classic, and its plot keeps getting used by many other works (the movie, The Mask of Zorro, for instance, and Charade, an actual Christian inspirational fiction book that uses the same plot).

 In the book, the Count of Monte Cristo takes great pleasure in revenge. He manipulates a man’s wife to commit suicide and take her son with her as well, driving the man insane. Then he destitutes another man, and causes a third to commit suicide. Of course, the point of the book is that they all deserved it, but still…

 Clearly, punishing people who were mean to you is attractive to most readers, and I’m not really surprised this natural human reaction is so popular. Everyone likes to see someone get their comeuppance. I am surprised that I don’t enjoy it. Like I said before, I like the versions of Cinderella where she doesn’t punish her stepsisters, and the parts of The Count of Monte Cristo where he relents instead of taking revenge. But this quirk of mine ends up interfering with my enjoyment of other classics as well.

 Take Roald Dahl. Everyone loves Roald Dahl! Everyone’s read at least a dozen of his books in their childhood – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, etc. So I read them too, and they confused me like crazy. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to laugh or feel bad (I actually felt bad) when James’ aunts get flattened by the giant peach, or Veruca Salt gets carried away by squirrels.

 So while I knew these books were wonderfully creative and inventive – no one’s written about being inside a chocolate factory before! And definitely not a chocolate factory that was so fun – I couldn’t get past feeling uncomfortable with them. In this case, I never particularly felt that the characters in the book were the vindictive ones – Charlie, or James, for example. It was just this undercurrent of vindictiveness that ran through most of the books – as if the author himself was exorcizing his demons.

 So here’s the thing – bad characters should learn something, or be punished, or whatever makes a satisfactory ending to a story. But what I find uncomfortable is when other characters take this into their own hands. Because I don’t believe we ever see things quite clearly when we’ve been hurt. And I’m always afraid that taking this kind of revenge just tangles things up and makes them worse.

But that’s just me. What do you think about vindictiveness in fiction?

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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Misc. Books, Prince Charming Extras

Making Fun of Readers?

books 2 I would never make fun of anyone who loved to read.

– Juliet Ashton, in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

People who love to read get made fun of, sometimes. This is probably leftover from childhood, when the bookworms were thought of as kids who sat in the corner and had no friends, while the ‘cool kids’ boasted about how much of Animal Farm they didn’t read. So I would never, never make fun of anyone who loved to read. It’s too much of a life pleasure to make someone embarrassed about doing it.

This is probably why I cringe inside when someone tells me, “I never read,” or “I haven’t cracked open a book since junior high!” Because I am afraid they’re subtly trying to prove they’re superior to me. This is probably an entirely unfair way of reading this situation, and it’s highly likely no one is trying to insult me this way. It’s merely a knee-jerk reaction from my schooldays, in the same way I cringe when someone calls me “smart,” and I automatically insist I’m not (while looking over my shoulder in fear of being labelled “teacher’s pet” as well.) In the same way I try not to tell anyone my grades, even though getting a good grade in university has a lot less stigma attached.

But this works the other way too. When someone admits to me that they love books too, I feel a sudden kinship with them, as sharing a love of reading means we have a lot of other things in common too. I’ve discovered this is not always true, of course, but one of the fastest ways to get me to like a person is still for them to not be afraid to talk about the books they read.

I know, people who don’t like reading are sometimes looked down on by readers – the best solution would be for everyone to think twice before laughing at someone else. But since all of you lovely people are clearly readers, I have to ask you – do you ever feel looked down upon because of your reading habits? How do you feel when you meet a fellow reader?

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The Message on Manhood in Young Adult Novels – Or, What Should We Teach Boys?

Think he’s a good little boy? {PD}

“But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?”

– YA Fiction and the End of Boys, by Sarah Mesle

When I read the above quote, I realized it was a huge question than I’ve never considered. To be upfront and honest here, I’ll admit I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all books with male protagonists, or even know what the best-sellers in the YA genre are (other than the really major ones like Twilight and The Hunger Games). But I’ve always hated how Twilight teaches young girls that romance will be magical and perfect, and how The Hunger Games allows Katniss to string along two guys forever without ever caring how that makes the guys feel. I’ve always considered what the impact will be on girls, likely because I am a girl. But yes, what do books teach young boys?

Well, my first instinct is to say boys don’t read Twilight because they want to be like Edward. Will boys actually want to become a moody, sparkly boyfriend who tries to keep his girlfriend safe by disabling her truck and not allowing her to go anywhere, all as a result of reading Twilight? Maybe not, but that doesn’t erase the fact that there really is no message for boys about how they should be, just like the only message you can take from it for girls is a really bad one. And stereotypes aside, boys do read, and some even read Twilight. We worry so much about teaching girls to be strong, independent and intelligent, that sometimes we forget to wonder what we are teaching boys.

Part of the problem is, as Sarah Mesle says in the article I quoted above, that it’s difficult to figure out how our society actually thinks men should behave. We have lots of stereotypes, of course: the overgrown child who lives in his parents’ basement, the slacker who plays videogames all day…or the womanizer, the muscle-bound dimwit, the emotionless action-hero. The great thing about literature is that it can examine stereotypes such as these, and subvert them. But replace them with what? Good values for men appear to be not abusing any power advantage their might possess as a result of society structures, and probably not getting too absorbed with their masculinity. Because we are not sure, in contrast to many cultures before us, that masculinity is really a very good value.

So we skirt around the issue, neglect to think about it, and forget to talk about it. But maybe literature is a good place to explore the place of boys and men in our modern world. After all, “how can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?”

Like I said above, I am by no means an expert on the YA genre, but let’s take a quick look at a few I have read. I mentioned Twilight already, and I really hope both boys and girls aren’t taking lessons on how to behave from those characters. Masculinity appears to consist of being a tightly controlled monster who is tightly controlling of female characters. Another big hit was The Hunger Games, with two nicely contrasting male characters. In this book, I got the feeling that Suzanne Collins was actually attempting to include a message to boys – that’s it’s okay not to be the big, manly hunter, and that boys who like baking can be useful in tight situations too. For some readers, it seemed to work, considering Peeta is a pretty popular character. I got annoyed at how being a decent guy meant letting a girl walk all over you, but maybe Collins was attempting to show passivity as not being bad either. (I still can’t buy that). And last up is the Harry Potter series, whose popularity seems like eons ago now that all these other book series have cropped up – but hey, it was a major series, and it had a boy as the hero. Harry Potter does have something to say about a boy growing up, and takes an oddly old-fashioned approach to it. He learns to take on responsibility, self-sacrifice and concern for others, not too different from the 19th century heroes Sarah Mesle talks about. But then, the wizarding world is a bit of a throw-back itself. How this journey would play out in the bland world of Privet Drive isn’t really explored.

(All the same, would you count Harry Potter as a good role model for boys? Have you read any YA books lately with an interesting take on “manhood”?)

Sarah Mesle’s argument is, in the end, that the rise of feminism should not mean the end of conversation on what “manhood” is for boys. Because one of the points of feminism was to gain new perspectives on both genders. Now, I have a funny relationship with feminism in general, because I do not agree with everything feminists talk about, but I can agree with this. Both masculinity and femininity can be taken to an extreme, both can be abused. We shouldn’t be afraid of pointing out stereotypes, or criticizing what traditional views of males and females get wrong. But we can’t focus on one side of the conversation only, and instill what we decide are good values in our girls, without setting up some sort of target for the boys to shoot at. And this includes the way writers write for them.

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Filed under Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Misc. Books, Twilight

How to Establish Your Fame Forever – Exemplified by Ovid

Ovid. {PD}

Wherever through the lands beneath her sway

The might of Rome extends, my words shall be

Upon the lips of men. If truth at all

Is stablished by poetic prophecy,

My fame shall live to all eternity.

– Ovid, Epilogue to the Metamorphoses

Well, Ovid, here I am reading your words two thousand or so years after you wrote them. And my Classics prof did describe you as perhaps one of the most important of the Latin poets (excluding Virgil). So is that the secret, then – declare your greatness loud enough until everyone else believes it? If that is, I should start ending off each blog post here with ‘by Harma-Mae Smit, her words shall be read for millennia.’

The Metamorphoses, in case you’re not a Latin scholar, is sort of a summary of all mythical tales of Greeks and Romans from the beginning of the world till Julius Caesar dies. I did enjoy reading it, especially when I came across a story I already knew because people told it to me as a kid (like Dadedalus and Icarus), though they never told kids Ovid was one who helped make the tale famous. It really helped me piece some of random Greek mythology together. So that much I enjoyed.

The one drawback is – did it really have to include women being kidnapped and assaulted by random gods and powerful men on every other page? I seriously spent a night dreaming of being kidnapped, and I don’t think that’s the emotion the poem was supposed to raise in me. It made me truly thank God, though, that I was not born a helpless woman in Ancient Greece.

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Secret Admirers Don’t Exist

“I have a secret secret admirer. Not only is her identity a secret—but so is the fact that she admires me.”

Jarod Kintz, This Book Title is Invisible

It’s a bit of an awkward admission to make, but every once in a while, I need to give up on a guy more quickly. I think most girls have a tendency to do this – hang onto hope that the guy might actually have an interest in you, even if he’s given you zero sign of it. At some point, you just have to face the central premise of He’s Just Not That Into You. That is, that far too many fairytales, romance novels and chick flicks have trained us to think that maybe, just maybe, the guy has a secret flame for you. Even though he doesn’t show it.

(I don’t recommend that movie, by the way. It’s just barely okay, not to mention the fact it completely subverts the message it pretends to be sending, by ending the way it does.)

But really, does anything show better how rarely romantic fiction matches up with reality? (I wrote about this before). Worse yet, if we don’t realize it’s not reality, we’ll trick ourselves into thinking in unhealthy ways. Sometimes, in fiction, ridiculous situations are necessary because they make a good plot. But you can’t let them raise expectations – and I don’t just mean expectations that a tall, dark and handsome stranger will drop out of the sky and declare he is in love with you.

So, take the Hunger Games. I had no idea this book was so focused on romance, given the fact it appears to be about kids forced to act as gladiators and kill each other, but it is. Apparently, for eleven years Peeta was in love with Katniss and never said anything to her. This makes a very good plot! Katniss finds out she’s in the ring, ready to kill a guy who is apparently devoted to her, and she actually figures out a way to play this angle to her advantage. Then the author makes the tried-and-true move of adding in another guy waiting for her back home, and makes the situation a genuine love triangle. Very good plot! Bear any resemblance to reality? Not really. If Peeta didn’t have the guts to say anything to Katniss before, how did he suddenly get the nerve to say something in front of millions of people on national television?

Okay, so Hunger Games fans might jump on me here and say it makes perfect sense. But my point is, people read that and start to hope that guy they’ve never talked to might secretly have a crush on them back! You know, they were just to shy to say so! In this case, I’d like to present the character of Romeo as a counter-example. Strange, but I’m going to use Romeo and Juliet as an example of more-realistic fiction for once. Romeo starts off the play as a secret admirer of Rosalie, but can’t work up the nerve to talk to her. He just can’t. All he can do is moon from afar. And then he meets Juliet, forgets about Rosalie completely, and never does talk to her in the end. Yes, I’m saying I think it’s far more likely the guy will meet someone else he actually can talk to, before devoting himself to secret admiration for years on end.

To pick another work of literature as an example, let me bring up Mansfield Park again. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford makes the mistake of trying to make Fanny Price fall in love with him, and instead falls in love with her! Oh, the drama! Don’t we all wish that jerk who’s been breaking all the hearts of the women around us would fall in love with us, just so we have the chance to teach them a lesson? Fanny is, of course, far too modest to realize Henry Crawford has fallen for her, which is the only reason she doesn’t notice he has, because everyone else around her does. She is completely blindsided when he tells her how her feels (and he is completely blindsided that she doesn’t feel the same way – their relationship is an interesting subversion of the Pride-and-Prejudice-plot). But really, unless you are far more modest than Fanny, you’d probably catch on faster than her. But if you think that jerk really doesn’t like you, you’re probably right. Don’t hope he’s trying to disguise a mad attraction.

What? Am I being a spoilsport here? Am I ignoring the fact that guys sometimes do need time to work up the nerve to say something? No, let me clarify. I mean if he’s never given you any sign of interest, you just gotta face reality, no matter what fiction might try to tell you. He might need time to work up his nerve, but if he takes eleven years, he’s not working up his nerve. He’s probably not even thinking of working up his nerve.

Therefore: secret admirers might exist, but not for long. They either say something or move along. 🙂

There you have it – another reason why fiction and real life differ. Agree or disagree?

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Filed under Hunger Games, Jane Austen, Misc. Books, True Romance

Top 5 Literary Couples

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So if I complain about Romeo and Juliet, Twilight, et al., what literary couple do I think worthy of being in the “top five”? Clearly, ones with some sort of strong personality types, and some sort of relationship journey. I don’t necessarily think these couples have to be in “romance books,” because sometimes the best romance plots are side-plots to the main events of the story (and I think only a truly skilled writer can drag out the will-they-or-won’t-they? over an 80 000 word novel without boring the reader). Anyway, I thought I might as well come clean and tell you exactly which romances in fiction I enjoyed. The list below is in no particular order.

Wizard Howl and Sophie:

Oh, Howl’s Moving Castle! Have I mentioned before how much I love this book? Well, take a vain, heartless, irresponsible wizard (with a habit of breaking ladies’ hearts), and a shy hat-maker currently under a curse that turned her into an old woman, and tell me how they’re going to get along. Unfortunately for Howl, Sophie’s transformation gives her to courage to tell people exactly what she thinks – now she’s only a crotchety old woman, after all. Even more unfortunately, Howl’s next conquest is set to be one of Sophie’s sisters, whom Sophie has fiercely groomed for adventure (not a broken heart) from her youth.

Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett

If you’ve been following my blog at all, you knew this one was going to be on the list, didn’t you? Jane Austen is one of the few authors who can make her characters agonize over does he like me or doesn’t he? for chapters, without making said character absolutely annoying. Darcy and Elizabeth both have faults they have to overcome, and it’s pretty clear by the end of Pride and Prejudice that they will still have to struggle with these faults for the rest of their life, even if they have found happiness.  Also, I like a couple who can disagree and work through it. I’m starting to realize more and more how many people shy away from disagreements, and how sometimes you need to just face that disagreement if you want to have any kind of relationship at all. Yes, I need a guy who won’t let me think I’m always right. 🙂

Gilbert Blythe and Anne Shirley

Anne Shirley breaks her slate over Gilbert’s head, because he had the nerve to call her “carrots” – is there any more iconic moment to the whole Anne of Green Gables series? From that moment on, readers just knew Anne and Gilbert were meant for each other. (I also loved Anne’s struggles through the series between her “friendship” feelings for Gilbert, and her ideas of what “falling in love” should be like. I think this is something many a girl has struggled with – and we all know guys who complain about being stuck in the “friend zone”)

Faramir and Eowyn

And now a couple from Lord of the Rings – surprise! It doesn’t include Aragorn.

I’ve always loved Eowyn. Her complaint to Aragorn of being a bird in a gilded cage, her disguise as Dernholm, her “But no living man am I!” defiance to the Witch-King… Lord of the Rings has very few strong female characters, but Eowyn more than makes up for it. I was SO surprised she ended up with Faramir, because if you read the books before you’ve seen the movies, you know Arwen doesn’t really show up as a character at all. Eowyn and Aragorn have all the interaction, and I thought in the end she would overcome his reluctance. (You don’t find out till the appendix that it’s not reluctance, but Aragorn is in love with Arwen the whole time.) But despite not expecting her to end up with Faramir, I really enjoyed reading about how they got to know each other, and “The Steward and the King” is one of my favourite chapters in the book. Faramir is another great, complex character in Lord of the Rings, so it made sense for them to get together. Also, Eowyn starts to realize by focusing so hard on her idea of what perfection in a man should look like, she is missing out on the decent, honourable man standing right in front of her.

I was SO sad they cut this part out of the movie, but I guess they couldn’t have done it justice!

Tommy and Tuppence

Agatha Christie has been knocked before for flat characterization, and I’ve never understood why because for most of her novels her characterization is perfectly serviceable to the plot. The focus is the mystery, after all. Despite this, I think she does have some characters in her 60+ novels that stick out, and two of these are Tommy and Tuppence. Take the first lines of The Secret Adversary:

“Tommy, old thing!”

“Tuppence, old bean!”

That gives you a pretty interesting intro to these two. Tuppence is a clever, broke, and not-very-good typist, who is forthright about her plans to marry a millionaire. Tommy is your stereotypical English bloke. They’re both survivors of WWI who returned to England to find there’s no jobs for veterans. So what do they do? Start fighting crime, of course.

There may be more of them that I missed. Have you read any of the above, and do you think I missed any important couples?

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Escaping Our Dystopian Futures

If I wanted to know how horrible this world can be, I’d watch the news. Like I said before, when I read, I read books to remind myself of the good things that can exist in this world. That’s not to say I don’t read stories where bad things happen. In some of my favourite books, terrible things happen. I just don’t get why some people like to read books that are dark and despairing from beginning to read, without a ray of hope anywhere.

Like dystopian science fiction.

We had to read The Chrysalids in school. I admit, there might’ve been a miniscule ray of hope at the end. But it was doom and gloom for the other two hundred and thirty-nine pages, as if John Wyndham was doing his best to convince me I’d hate to live in a world devastated by nuclear bombs. Hey, I wasn’t arguing. I won’t even start to argue with that, so why act like you need a whole novel to bang that point home to me? This is why I have such a love-hate relationship with science fiction. The idea of writing about an imaginary future is neat. But does it say something about us that we’re so incredibly pessimistic?

The consensus is, if humanity has a future, we’re going to be struggling out of the ruins of civilization somewhere. I suppose this isn’t an unreasonable assumption – the Roman Empire collapsed, after all. But I think it says something about humanity that we’re so convinced things are getting worse. That no matter what new thing humanity invents, it will somehow contribute to our downfall.

Oh well. Utopian science fiction does exist, apparently. In fact, here’s an author who thinks we should write more of it, and inspire inventors and future engineers. (As if there’s anything left to invent, now that we’ve come up with the iPad?) Maybe I should go read some of that.

What about you – can you handle depressing fiction?

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