Gulliver’s Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts

gulliver's travelsGulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

It is strange what sticks in the popular imagination, isn’t it? Gulliver’s Travels is a sprawling tale, taking our titular hero on four separate journeys to even more islands and societies. Written by a master satirist, author of A Modest Proposal among other essays, it works as a parody of the popular travel tales of his day, a critique of utopia, and is a deeply misanthropic and biting satire of Jonathan Swift’s own time. And yet somehow, it has been commonly reduced to this. It is a simplistic version of Gulliver’s Travel, to say the least.

In Swift’s tale, Lemuel Gulliver takes a position as a ship’s surgeon, and later a captain, traveling the world. In the first tale, he is quickly shipwrecked and finds himself in the land of Lilliput, with diminutive people only a few inches high. Though they are understandably frightened, they eventually let him stay. He learns much about their society, including the deep rifts that have arisen over which side of an egg one cracks to open it, and eventually loses favor after refusing to enslave their enemies, the Blefuscudians, similarly sized people of a nearby island. He ends up being arrested and sentenced to be blinded, before a friend helps him escape.

After this, he decides to set sail once again, and ends up abandoned in a strange land, and is found by the Brobdingnagians, giants roughly 12 times as tall as a man, who eventually take him in almost as a pet. The opposite of the Liliputians in every way, the Brobdingnagians are peaceful, and are shocked and horrified when learning of the weapons of war possessed by England and others. His traveling box, which he is carried around in, is eventually picked up by an eagle and dropped in the sea, where he is rescued and brought home to England.

Surprisingly, Gulliver still wants to go back to sea. He captains a ship that is attacked by pirates, and he is marooned hear a series of islands with a bunch of stuff Swift wanted to shoehorn in, but not enough to write about in their own journeys. Laputa, a flying island, is devoted to learning, but unable to use it to advance their society, and is perpetually at war with the island below, Balnibarbi, who they regularly pelt with rocks. Balnibarbi is devoted to research with no planning or thought, currently examining how to turn marble into soft pillows, and find evidence of political conspiracy in someone’s waste. He takes a side trip to Glubbdubdrib, where he talks with many ghosts about whether or not historical times were better, then visits the island of Luggnagg, where the people are immortal but continue to age, and are considered dead at the age of eighty even though they are still hanging around. He ends up getting to Japan, where is helped on his way home.

Many of us would want to stay on land after this, but Gulliver takes off once again, and this time there is a mutiny and he is left in the land of the Hoyhnhnms, intelligent and wise horses, constantly having to fight off the Yahoos, savage humans not unlike those in Planet of the Apes. Here, Gulliver falls in love with Hoyhnhnms society, their honesty, their peacefulness, their wisdom, their perfect society, and to despise all other Yahoos, including those back home in Britain. The Hoyhnhnms, however, see him as a Yahoo, and one who might teach other Yahoos, and so he is sent back from whence he came, where he lives out his life in the stable, talking to the horses.

Gulliver’s Travels was written shortly after Robinson Crusoe came out and was meant to parody the many such travel narratives at the time, and poke fun at many aspects of British society. It would, no doubt, be much better read in a class where someone could explain all of the jokes. I only got about half. And, like many classics, it is shockingly dirty, and one wonders why schools allow it in their classrooms! He gets kicked out of Lilliput because he puts out a fire by pissing on the castle and the town (the Lilliputians are quite insulted.) In Brobdingnag there is a whole section of him basically crawling around on a giant’s breasts. Whenever anyone complains about entertainment today and says we must think of the children, remember: people were filthy back in the day. Shakespeare sounds better than South Park now because of the old-timey words and the British accent, but back then? It was not.

I remember reading this book in high school and liking it quite a bit, and I think it probably spoke to me much more back then, when I was angsty and definitely better than the rest of the world and reading Voltaire and other contemporaries. This time around, though, it seemed to dark. The misanthropy was too much. And the misogyny as well—I understand that he exaggerated the misogyny some to parody it as well, which Swift did in other work, but the problem there is there are many who would see what he wrote and not assume it was exaggerated. Maybe things were better than, but I read all satire these days with an eye towards Poe’s law.  Basically, with all that’s going on right now in the world it was darker than I wanted. But that’s definitely on me for picking up Swift and wanting to be cheered up—what did I expect?


Beatrice and Virgil


Beatrice andbeatrice and virgil Virgil, Yann Martel

I was among the millions of people who were enthralled by Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I’ve read it a few times. I’ve shared it with others. The writing was so engaging and pulled me in, the story so fascinating. I loved the book, the story it told, the examination of fantasy and fable. Sadly, I am also among the many who, after falling so deeply in love with Life of Pi, found myself disappointed in the follow up, Beatrice and Virgil.

Beatrice and Virgil opens on an author, Henry L’Hote, who bears a striking resemblance to Martel himself. L’Hote is a Canadian author. He wrote a book that was surprisingly well received and continues to sell for years, with many adoring fans. The book told a story through animals, and is described as approaching a serious story using animals to give it a fantastical bent. He then suffers severely from writers block, waiting five years before writing another book—an essay and fable about the Holocaust, which he foresees being sold together. His essay proclaims that there is not enough true art about the Holocaust, which gets to the truth outside of facts, and we should allow greater exploration of it through art. The fable will present this artistical description of the Holocaust, and the stories shall be packaged together as a flip-book and sold as one.

The publishers tear down Henry’s idea, to the point that he decides his first book was enough and he will give up writing for the time being. He and his wife decide to move, settling in “one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin.” While there, his wife finds employment as a nurse, and he putters around, playing clarinet, being in an amateur theatre troupe, working in a chocolate café. (A café that sells chocolate, I mean. Not made of it.)  However, people continue to send him fan mail, and eventually he receives a letter from someone who is coincidentally living nearby, in the same city. A letter that includes the short story “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller” by Gustave Flaubert, a piece of a play with the two characters Beatrice and Virgil, and a short note saying that the author needs his help.

Through this note we are entered into the rest of the story. Henry finds an elderly taxidermist, also Henry, working on a play—a play very similar to the style of Waiting for Godot, as Martel himself points out in a common theme of self-awareness—based on two of the animals in his shop, Beatrice, a stuffed donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. They have been through unspeakably terrible experiences they refer to as “the Horrors.” They wander around on a striped shirt. Their list of how they shall remember their experiences includes a word that sounds like “Auschwitz” and an address tied to a trove of documents from the Warsaw Ghetto. Though Henry the Taxidermist denies it throughout, the play seems very much like a tale of animals that is about the Holocaust. Henry the author is intrigued.

I do think that Martel is a talented writer, speaking strictly in terms of writing. I was pulled into the book and read through it quickly (it is under 200 pages.) Some of the passages, such as the first part of the play where Beatrice and Virgil discuss a pear, are quite beautifully written. And I agree with his meditations on fiction being almost more important than fact in tapping into deep truths, although I wouldn’t say he is the first to have this insight.

That being said, the problems of this book far outweigh one well-written passage. For one thing, it’s far too self-referential, while also remaining distanced from itself at the same time. In one review I read it was referred to as a lesson in post-modern pastiche and I can’t say I entirely disagree. And this is coming from someone who generally enjoys post-modern pastiche!

As already mentioned, the main character, Henry L’Hote, is clearly meant to resemble Yann Martel. The first part of the book, outlining why author Henry would want to write such a book of an essay and a story in the first place, clearly serves as the essay within this book, with the play acting as the story. And yet at the same time, it remains distant. Even Henry is kept at arms length, as we are told this is a pen name, and never given his real identity. The story itself, this fable for the holocaust, is written as a play in the style of Godot, that is written by a character that the main character then meets. We are at least 5 layers removed from this fable that Martel wants to tell, which seems a rather coy, and almost fearful, way to present his tale.

Then there is this. While I agree that horrific events should be told through a variety of art, that is not, in fact, what this is. While the book focused quite a bit on our own ways of looking at history and art, and the trials of someone who wants to write about it, for a book about the Holocaust it actually focused very little on the horrific events and how we were supposed to examine and feel about themselves ourselves. It did not talk about why they happened or how we prevent them or how we live with them or how those who went through them can continue. It was using the Holocaust as a way to address how we tell stories, rather than stories as a way to tell the Holocaust. Which is, in my opinion, not at all the way to address such a horrific occasion, and a rather disrespectful treatment of it. Far from the arguments presented by the concerns of Martel in this book, it’s not disrespectful because there were animals or a fable, but because he was far more concerned than the author struggling to write this story than any participant in the story. It was the Holocaust as background.

This last is, by far, the biggest concern of the book. The Holocaust was the attempted extermination of a people; it was neighbors turning against neighbors; it was ‘good people’ engaging in, going along with, or turning a blind to the most horrific acts, it was an example of the worst of society and the reason we must constantly be vigilant against the rise of evil, exclusion and inertia. It’s not a way for an author with no connection to it to work out his feelings on art and himself. Let us not cheapen it in such a way.

Death Comes to Pemberley

death comes to pemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James

Can I make a confession here? I would like to think that this blog is a safe space, where I can open up and be honest with you. So here it goes:

I have never really loved Jane Austen.

It feels good to get that off my chest. I know that she’s a wonderful author. I know that I should love her. As a well read, well-educated feminist woman of a certain race and socioeconomic status, it’s practically required. And it’s not that I dislike her. She’s fine. And of the Austen books, Pride and Prejudice is definitely my favorite, and one I’ve grown to appreciate more. It’s just, well, British Victorian books and comedies of manners and all that aren’t exactly my thing. I tend to get frustrated and want to yell at everyone to just say what they’re thinking. And the excruciating politeness of it all just seems exhausting;^ I do not think I would enjoy living in that particular place and time.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that Jane Austen is a beloved author and her books are classics. For some reason, a bunch of culture, especially high-brow women’s culture, in recent years is now centered around Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. Finding Mr. Darcy. The song “Oh Mr. Darcy.” This entire Etsy page. The book is everywhere. (Oddly enough focused far too often on how wonderful Mr. Darcy is, whose main qualification is that he realized he was being a jerk and liked Elizabeth. There should really be more feminist self-help on how to be Elizabeth than how to find Mr. Darcy.) Enter Death Comes to Pemberley, by acclaimed mystery novelist P.D. James.

Death Comes to Pemberley follows the Darcies a few years out from their marriage and the end of Pride and Prejudice. They are established and happily married, although Darcy’s relations still do not entirely approve. A ball is in the works, two suitors are vying for the hand of Darcy’s sister, Georgina, and they have two young boys. Their life is thrown into disarray, however, when Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, shows up in a state, screaming that her husband, Darcy’s former friend George Wickham, has been killed in the woods. Instead, after a search party is mounted, they find Wickham covered in blood, dragging his friend, Captain Martin Denny, and saying that he killed his only friend. From there the mystery proceeds.

I thought the book was fun enough, and I do enjoy a good old fashioned British mystery. James captured the style of Austen quite well, and clearly did a great deal of research, or was already familiar with, the legal systems of Victorian Britain. I don’t remember Pride and Prejudice well enough to say how accurate it was in terms of all the relationships, but James has enough attention to detail that I assume all of that is correct. I will say that whether or not it was accurate or true to the original, I very much enjoyed all of the character work in Death Comes to Pemberly. Not just Elizabeth and Darcy, who have the sort of amicable and respectful marriage that I imagine most of the fans dream of for them, but the household staff, other magistrates, and even the most incidental characters seem to have clear personalities, motivations and a thought-out purpose. I do enjoy that sort of attention in a book.

I am sure that a hardcore Pride and Prejudice fan would get far more out of this book than I did. As I mentioned, I didn’t get all of the allusions to the actual story, and I am still frustrated by everyone in Victorian England who won’t just say what they mean. I still greatly enjoyed this book, though, even being only vaguely familiar with the story. James is a talented writer, and an excellent story teller. I definitely recommend, for Austen fans and mystery fans alike.

*As long as I’m confessing all the ways I’m betraying my race, socioeconomic status and womanhood, you know what else I don’t love? La La Land. It was fine, better than not doing anything, I suppose. But that’s it. It was kind of boring!°

°I don’t want to give the impression I’m some brave countercultural independent thinker, though. I still enjoy British crime dramas, drinking white wine during the day, brunch, mommy bloggers, and all the other things you’d expect.

^And yes, I know I was just full of praise for a different Victorian novel. Honestly, part of the reason I was so gushing there is because it is rare that I would so thoroughly enjoy one.

The Woman in White

woman in whiteThe Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

How did I not know about this book?! That is the thought that was through my head the entire time I was reading. This book was a gift from a friend who thought the same thing while she was reading, and now we have become evangelists. We are going to begin carrying copies of the book around and handing them to passerby, and lobbying schools to include it in their curriculum, and leaving them strewn around English departments until it has been given its due. The fact that none of us know about this book is an outrage and a scandal, I say!

But, wait. I must slow my pen. I get ahead of myself. Let me explain more about this remarkable book.

Wilkie Collins, the author, was a Victorian author, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. And for a time, apparently was even outselling him. Woman in White was written as a serial in a magazine in London, and was one of the earliest suspense novels (or ‘sensation novels’ as it was described at the time.) We are introduced to one of the narrators, Mr. Walter Hartright, a drawing-master in London, as he is learning about and deciding to take a position as a drawing master in the country for two young women. The night he is about to leave he encounters a woman dressed all in white who is in distress, and speaking cryptically the entire time.

From there, we have many of the tropes of literature at this time. Crazy coincidences! Unscrupulous men! Pure, put upon women who do quite a bit of fainting! Terrible secrets! Romance! Secret societies! So many twists! But my goodness it was fun, and so engagingly written.

The most amazing, the most delightfully surprising, thing about this book are the characters. Apparently in his initial publishing of this book, Collins begged the reviewers not to give away the story or share too much about the suspense of the book, and so I won’t dive too deeply into the story. But the characters! His introduction states that he believes the source of all interest in a story starts with its characters, and so that is where he puts his efforts. This shows in the book as each character, even those we encounter for a few pages, is a thought out person. For his limited appearance, we all know Mr. Fairlie, a self-described and self-involved invalid, and the guardian of the Miss Fairlie the story revolves around. Ms. Michelson, the housekeeper, is a clear picture of a competent woman. Count Fosco, the larger than life character in the book, is a fascinating creation.

And what is truly wonderful, however is that the women are fleshed out as well! Marian Holcombe, sister of Laura Fairlie, is one of the most amazing, fully realized, intelligent women I have ever encountered in a work of fiction, in any century. The fact that she was written in the 1800s is truly astounding. I won’t pretend that this book is a feminist rallying cry or anything. The other characters in the book approvingly describe Marian as being as smart as a man. And her sister, Laura Fairlie, is a well-liked plot device in need of protecting, as befits a woman in a Victorian novel. But let us recognize the times. Marian is amazing.

Again, I am very surprised and disappointed that Collins is not more well-known and often-read in these times. Especially given that he is one of the creators of the suspense genre—this was written decades before the Sherlock Holmes stories, and that he was about as popular as Dickens in his time, he should be getting more respect in these days. And the book holds up! Collins was an excellent writer. He wrote this as a serial, as Dickens wrote many of his books, but it never feels like he was being paid by word or stretching it out. It feels like a full book on its own. Personally, I can think of a few other Victorians I would have set to the side to be able to read this book when I was in school.

So if you are a lover of the classics, a lover of good characters and strong women, or a lover of the suspense or mystery novel, I strongly encourage you to pick this one up. And tell your friends, because this book needs to be more well known. Personally, I’m going to start my Wilkie Collins booster campaign with the county school board today. By the time my kids are in high school, I hope this is part of the cannon.

The Circle

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The Circle, Dave Eggers

I read this a while ago, and hadn’t quite gotten around to writing the review. But since the movie is coming out soon, this seems as good as time as any to catalogue my thoughts. So let’s begin, shall we?

The Circle is Dave Eggers attempt at a cautionary tale. The story chronicles Meg, the stand in for all of us, fresh out of college and with a serious lack of confidence and yearning to prove herself. Her college roommate, Amanda, who is gorgeous, rich, athletic, brilliant, and generally better at everything than Meg or any of us, is employed in the upper echelons of the Circle, a bit of a Google/Apple hybrid, and gets Meg a job there, too. The Circle has a giant campus, controls social media, online shopping, entertainment, biometrics, artificial intelligence, technology hardware, and so on and so forth. It has pioneered TruID, a program to ensure people are posting and purchasing things under their own names, which revolutionized the internet and also made The Circle the gatekeepers for most things online. They are prestigious, and a dream company to work for. They only want what’s best for all of us, and are our benevolent overlords, or would be if we would only let them. I’m sure you can intuit where this is going.

I am generally a fan of Dave Eggers, who, for all his faults, I find to be an engaging writer. So let’s start with what I liked. I, well, loved is the wrong term, but I thought the oppressive concern The Circle had for their employees, the yearning for them to be a part of The Circle for everything, for the company to be a family, made me cringe. The Circle is all of the worst of Silicon Valley on steroids. They have dorms for employees to sleep at in case they stay at work too late. They have numerous social groups that they require invite their employees to join. They have happy hours or social outings or team building events almost every night. They have rec rooms and gyms and cafeterias for all the employees to use, so why wouldn’t you?

Early on in the book Meg is invited to speak with her boss and chastised on a few occasions for going home on the weekends, for not having a high ‘social ranking’ (for interaction with her Facebook and Twitter stand ins), for not joining any of the social groups. These conversations are all too realistic and were legitimately squirm inducing for an introvert and anti-forced-fun individual like myself. Imagine the flair scene from Office Space times 1000 and even more uncomfortable because the boss sincerely believes what he’s selling. *shudders*

The other thing that he nails, at least from my limited experience, is the bizarre psychology of rating everything and everyone all the time. This is a weird thing we do these days, right? And we’re obsessed with it! Not just obsessed with the chance to rate everything constantly, but also that anything less that CONSTANT PERFECTION is terrible, and anything less than total love means that we’re failures. And there are many disruptors who think this is good! There’s even a couple of tech bros who now want to replace tips with a rating system in their app that will pay out ‘tips’ based on your rating that you can basically only spend in-app. *shudders* This is so terrible for so many reasons. But psychologically, it means we are now obsessed with either our publicity* or our popularity, and expect constant approbation. At one point, Meg is debuting a new feature and The Circle administration does an instant poll asking, “Is Meg just the best?” And she ends up obsessing over the 6% or so (I can’t remember the exact number) who said no, thinking constantly about how 6% of the employees hate her. And, yeah, that’s about what all of this does to us.

Okay, now that I’ve explained some of the things Eggers absolutely got right, I will admit that I still didn’t care for the book. My first complaint is, admittedly, rather nitpicky. But I think it’s an important nit to pick. The introduction to the book explains how one of the ways that The Circle had managed to capture almost all of the internet was through the TruID program, which wouldn’t let anyone post or comment or buy things without authentication of their real self. This cut down on trolling and online bullying, and made everyone love The Circle. Throughout the book, this is a major theme. That part of the way The Circle is able to get everyone to love the and the work they do—because by being transparent, and making sure people can’t hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity they’ve ended this online cruelty and will make people behave better. This is, quite frankly, the type of thing that people who didn’t use the internet much said back when blogs were first a thing. In reality, though, verified checks and getting people to use their names is not such a check on cruelty. That’s just, really, really not how the whole thing works and it makes me think that anyone who says it is doesn’t actually know that much about social media and the internet.

And then there’s how Meg is kind of a wuss of an audience stand in. She’s supposed to be all of us, hesitant about some of this and then embracing it quickly. Okay, yeah, that happens, but she doesn’t really put up a fight at all. Come on. Let’s make the audience stand in a little less easily manipulated.

But the real issue for me is what is always the cardinal sin of a book. Giving your message with a sledge hammer. Remember how I said you could see where everything was going from the set up? Yeah, we know everything that is going to happen. Maybe not the details, but definitely the broad strokes. And we know how we’re supposed to feel.  There is actually, literally, a shark discovered by The Circle’s science expeditions that viciously devours anything it comes in contact with, even if the shark isn’t hungry, and no animal can stand a chance against it. Yeah, that happens. Can you guess what it represents? Here is an actual video taken of me at the exact moment I read that part of the book.

I do not like being told what to think, and I do not like heavy handed metaphors! They are even more irksome than the somewhat irritating sex scenes, and some of the more poorly thought out plot points. (Listen, the problem with there being absolutely no privacy isn’t that there are major skeletons in everyone’s closet. It’s that all the little things can be twisted and that no none is perfect and also that then there’s no privacy).

So, overall, I have to rate the book only a three out of five stars. There were some really good points. But overall, it was just too obvious, and too uncomfortable, and too heavy handed in too many sections for me to, in good faith, rate it higher.

*I have had both Facebook and Twitter let me know which of my posts on my personal account are doing well and also let me know how to pay to boost them. Like I need to be doing A/B testing on my random thoughts on the podcast I’m listening to? Like I should keep track of the pictures of which of my kids gets the most interaction? This is so, so, bizarre.

Meet Me in Atlantis

Meet Me in AtlantisMeet Me in Atlantis, Mark Adams

What if—bear with me here—what if someone wrote a book about Atlantis that 1) was objective and not crazily hyperbolic about definitely finding Atlantis/proving the whole story is aliens/talking about time travel, 2) was skeptical yet still managed to treat Atlantis hunters objectively and with respect, and 3) was a ton of fun while discussing Plato in depth and debating the translation of ancient Greek. Crazy, you say? Mark Adams thought it was just crazy enough to work.

This was a really fun read. Adams begins by summarizing where, exactly, the mythology comes from (details that I had actually not known before): in two of Plato’s last dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, in which Plato also discusses in detail the creation of the world and the World-Soul.  As part of this discussion, his speakers also mention a past society with the following details:

  • It was a nesos, usually translated as “island”
  • It was an advanced power that sent warriors to attack Athens and Egypt 9000 years before the time Plato was writing (so about 11,000 years ago now)
  • It had a large central plain and concentric circles of some sort
  • It had a ton of really huge canals, just really enormous, and one canal leading in and out of the canals
  • It was beyond the Pillars of Heracles, probably the Strait of Gibraltar
  • They had a giant temple to Poseidon
  • They were completely wiped out through an earthquake/flood combo and were swallowed up by the waves never to be seen again.

Got all that? There’s a lot more measurements (so many measurements) for all of the canals, the size of the plains, etc. and information about how many kings there were in Atlantis, and how they had a whole thing about sacrificing bulls (leading some people to think they were Minoans), but that’s less important. Oh, and how Plato, while swearing this is totally true, has his speaker relay it as something he heard from a friend who heard it from his completely real Canadian girlfriend this Egyptian priest he knew who swears it happened.

Adams tackles all of this and sorting through what it could all possibly mean from every angle, and with a great deal of wit and objectivity. He speaks with archeologists and anthropologists, philosophers and Plato experts, and the world’s leading Antlantologists—Atlantis hunters and experts. What I loved most about this book is that he approaches basically all of the theories with the same fresh, skeptical eyes. He looks into numerous possible locations for Atlantis with enthusiastic Atlantis searchers. He talks about the numerous earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis that have wracked the Mediterranean and could be the foundations for a myth, examines other flood stories, and talks about the many other unsolved mysteries of the time, like who were the Sea Peoples? He examines Plato’s obsession with Pythagoras and whether the whole thing is an elaborate number code, and even discusses the possibilities of people sailing from the Americas with an open mind examining all the evidence. It was incredibly refreshing to read something that treated many viewpoints as potentially valid and didn’t dismiss anything out of hand! (Well, except aliens and time travelers. He was rather dismissive there.)

And the book was incredibly well informed! I learned a lot. Not just a lot of crazy theories, I mean a lot of actual history and philosophy and anthropology. I have joked that I’ve about reached the limit of what History Channel and Science Channel documentaries and popular books will teach me about the world—I probably need a real course of study to learn more. But this book had all sorts of trivia I didn’t know about before. Did you know that Malta has what are possibly the earliest free standing stone structures we know of? I didn’t, because who knows anything about Malta except they had the Knights of Malta and a bunch of falcons? But I’m so glad I know about it now. (I’m going to try to work it into conversation at the next party we go to.) I didn’t know Plato was interested in Pythgoras’ weird numbers cult and may have worked bits of it into his works. And I actually didn’t know about how many times Mediterranean cities were wiped out by catastrophe! I wonder if it was a particularly unlucky region, or just one of the few that left enough clues that there was something before the flood.

All in all, there is a lot to recommend this book. Mark Adams is an engaging writer, and I breezed through this book. I was amazed at how much it taught me, and how fascinating the Atlantis mythology is. I’m not sold on the Atlantis hunt (and Adams isn’t really trying to sell anyone on it, either). It seems to me the kind of thing that has a kernel of truth but is probably a composite of destroyed civilizations. But it definitely pulled me in to the mystery, and kept me entertained for the journey.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

jonathan strangeJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

This sprawling, 1000+ page story of magic’s return to England is truly amazing. Set during the Napoleonic wars, it takes place in an England where Magic is—or at least was—very real, with an alternate history where John Uskglass the Raven King had ruled over the North for centuries, faerie roads used to be common, and many groups and clubs of learned men meet to discuss and write articles on the history of magic. At this time, however, it has been generations since the last faerie road has closed. And this is the mystery at the heart of the book: what has happened to British magic, and when it will return to England?

When the book begins, we are introduced to a group of theoretical magicians—men who study magic, not perform it—with a new member asking the impolitic question of why practical magic no longer exists. Through this discussion we eventually come to Mr. Norrell, who offers to prove his practical magic in a dramatic fashion if all theoretical magicians will renounce their claim to the title of magician. His success brings him to London, where he endeavors to restore magic to its rightful, respectable place, aid the war effort, and win high regard—but only for his own particular thoughts on magic. We are eventually introduced to Jonathan Strange, charismatic, impulsive, and a brilliant natural at magic, who stumbles into his career as a practical magician.

This is the bare-bones of a story that takes us throughout the Iberian peninsula in the war, through the way magic begins to effect numerous characters throughout the story, introduces us to an amoral faerie, the Man with the Thistledown Hair, and sees magic reintroduced to England. And most of all, dives in depth into the story of the Raven King and the history of the England just off to the side of our own world, where many similar things have happened, but in very different ways.

The world building in Jonathan Strange is truly staggering. Many characters in the tale have their own tales. The background story of Jonathan Strange, for instance, doled out in one or two longish chapters, could have been its own standalone short story. Almost every character we encounter is fully fleshed out, and their own story expertly woven into and important to the larger narrative. Even more amazing, though, is her story of magic. The alternate history, and the tale of the Raven King, dips in and out of the story at all turns, with the Raven King overshadowing everything that is done with magic, and even politics in the Britain of the book. In addition, footnotes are given for numerous references to magic and history, and citations of other books within this world, with each footnote being its own tale again. For instance, take a look at just this one footnote in the book, a fairly representative one:

One autumn morning the Cumbrian child went out into her grandmother’s garden. In a forgotten corner she discovered a house about the height and largeness of a bee-skep, built of spiders’ webs stiffened and whitened with hoar-frost. Inside the house was a tiny person who at times immeasurably old and at other times no older than the child herself. The little person told the Cumbrian child that she was a songbird-herd and that for ages past it had been her task to look after fieldfares, redwings and mistle-thrushes in that part of Cumbria. …

…and on for several more sentences to the end of the tale. To say nothing of the occasional three and four page footnote. David Foster Wallace has nothing on Susanna Clarke.

I also loved the way Clarke brought in other topics in a subtle way, an excellent example of “show don’t tell”. The book is not a polemic or a treatise on social justice issues by any means. But any careful reading will pick out the way the same magickal affliction affects an aristocratic woman and a servant in very different ways, with the former an invalid who everyone can tell is ailing the latter forced to carry on in the same manner. Or the way some of the problems may have been solved earlier if people were expected more to listen to and pay attention to sidelined women. These issues only arise here and there, but are certainly present to anyone who cares to pay attention.

I’ve read this book twice now. And each time it’s been just as surprisingly delightful, intriguing, and just so, so impressive. I guess there’s more detail in something like The Silmarillion, but Clarke still has my admiration because she made it interesting, too. I know the thickness might be off putting to some, but I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a wonderful story, amazing world created, and for anyone willing to put in the thought and time discussions a-plenty to be had.