Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fantasy for English majors

Much of my adult life I selected books for their literary merit:  classic works that made up the literary cannon, or contemporary works that followed or built on that tradition.  What can I say? I was an English major.  Then I went to library school, took a children’s literature class and rediscovered my first love:  books that are full of magic. 

Now my favorite reads are those that combine English major nerdy allusions to classical literature with characters, objects, and places that transcend the limitations of the physical world.

When a book showed up on the new book cart called The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, I couldn’t resist.  First time novelist Emily Croy Baker creates a protagonist who has plenty of book smarts, but no judgment when it comes to personal relationships.  During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, eager to avoid her stalled dissertation, Nora Fischer wanders off and somehow finds herself in another realm. There she meets glamorous people who are as eager to meet her as she is to escape her problems. But when the elegant veneer of this dreamland shatters, Nora finds herself in a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. And the only way she can survive is by learning real magic herself.  According to Baker’s website a sequel is in the works. 

The Book of Life, final book of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy was published and added to the Peter White Public Library collection this summer.  I was hooked in the first chapter of the first book, A Discovery of Witches.  The main character, a historian interested in alchemy, is sitting in a library reading room in Oxford, when she realizes the book before her is a magical text.   As it turns out, she is quite magical herself.  Certain elements of the series border on the silly (she dates a vampire and they go to yoga class together), but it is all good fun.

City of Dark Magic by Magnes Flyte (pen name for writing team Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch) explores some of the same alchemic territory as the All Soul’s Trilogy.  This book stands out in my memory as one of the all-around most fun reading experiences I’ve had in recent years.  The bulk of the story is somehow simultaneously set in both modern day and not so modern day Prague.  Time becomes fluid in this story.  There are, as the title suggests, elements of dark magic.  The protagonist is a smart young doctoral student of musicology.  I learned a few things about Beethoven.  That's enough background--read the book, have fun. 
Written in a mock academic style complete with windy tangential footnotes, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke recounts an important period of English history (1806-1817) when most people believed magic to be dead.  A big, thick, satisfying read, this book tickled my inner anglophile.  

The Golem and Jinni by Helene Wecker explores what happens when magical creatures from other cultures hit American soil.  Set during the turn of the century as immigrants flocked to New York City, this novel serves as a careful study of both human nature and American history. 

Neil Gaimen explores similar territory in American Gods.  This road trip novel asks the question what would happen when the gods of different immigrant groups traveled to America and confronted the gods the indigenous groups?  Similarly, the work of Canadian author Charles deLint explores how the roles of indigenous gods change as we move to a more urban culture. 

Another good Jinni story can be found in AS Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye:  Five fairy stories.  In the title story, Byatt relates the strange and uncanny relationship between a world renowned scholar of the art of story-telling and the marvelous being that lives in a mysterious bottle, found in a dusty shop in an Istanbul bazaar.

Next for me is A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent  by Marie Brennan.  I received an e-mail this morning informing me that the audiobook is now available for download onto my Ipad through the Library’s Overdrive service.  I can’t wait! 

--Ellen Moore, Webmaster

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