Doctor Who Series/Season 6

I’ve been pretty behind on Doctor Who until recently. For some reason, it’s one of those odd shows that I absolutely love, but never make time to keep up with. Thankfully, with Netflix’s instant streaming, I was able to fix that, and I got caught up with the latest season.

I just have to say, I’m liking Matt Smith as the Doctor more and more. He’s just got something about him that I think is really great. David Tennant is still my favorite I think (although I confess that I don’t know too much about the pre-Russel Davies revival Doctors), but I’m pretty sold on Smith.

The storylines are still very solid, with the sort of nightmare hotel episode (“The God Complex”) being my favorite of the season, but really, the whole thing was really good. I do wish I had more interest in the overarching story though. I feel like they foreshadow for a dozen episodes, and then the payoff is never quite as big as I expect. I’m very interested to see where they go with this “Doctor Who?” thing though.

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Gushing about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

A couple of years back, I was going nuts. It was the end of my sophomore year and I was tired of writing papers and reading textbooks. So I looked through the outrageously large selection of books I’d brought with me from home, hoping to find something to read. As you probably guessed, you astute reader you, I picked Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I’d heard good things, and it was a nice cross between “literary fiction” and fantasy, that both the snobby English major side of me and the nerdy side of me could agree on. I was a little skeptical at first, because it didn’t seem to be what I expected from the “adult Harry Potter set in the 19th century” I’d been promised. As I got into the book though, I was completely blown away.

Well. Kinda. See, it took me about a month to read it, continuing on into the summer. This isn’t something I’m used to. I’ve been known to whip through thousand-page novels in two weeks flat. So at first I was a little frustrated with the pacing and the writing style, but I couldn’t stop reading. And when I was done, I didn’t know what to do with it.

Two years down the road though, I have to say, it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. In a bizarre way, it is kind of like an adult Harry Potter. There’s no wizard school, but there’s an older magicianteaching a younger, daring one. There’s no dark lord, but there is an angsty faerie (a faerie of the old school. The school that steals children and makes soul-stealing deals). But there’s a feel about the whole thing that reminds you a bit of the Potter books. And I mean, that would be pretty cool in and of itself, right? That’s a solid start for a fantasy novel. But Strange is so much more than that.

It’s written like a 19th Century British novel in a lot of ways, and some of the dialogue between the British aristocracy are reminiscent of Jane Austen. There’s also that post-modernist cliche of footnotes, that I find either completely annoying or incredibly fun. Here, it’s the latter. Back story, usually in the form of literal stories that characters reference, is provided to the reader for our convenience. Reading only the footnotes in this 800 page book, it’s easy to walk away with a decent understanding of the magician-king John Uskglass, the King in the North, and the founder of English Magic, who has shades of King Arthur and every fairy tale king you’ve ever heard of. It’s also brilliantly funny in places, and the magic system (for all you fantasy fans) is excellent. As Lev Grossman says, “it seems like there are rules to it, but you can’t quite figure out what they are.” And really, that’s OK with me.

My favorite thing about the book I think, is the character of Mr Norrell. He’s a crotchety old academic, very much of the traditional English upper class. He’s secluded himself away in his deliciously named home Hurtfew Abbey, where he rediscovered the lost art of magic, systematically collected every known copy of magical books in his library, and informed the society of magicians (really a group of wealthy magic history buffs) that they must stop calling themselves magicians. He makes a gruesome deal that lands an innocent woman in her own private hell and with that, Clarke does something that I find really interesting. It would be easy to have turned Norrell from a grumpy, prideful old codger standing in the way of progress into a terrible villain, but there isn’t a time when you every truly hate the man. He’s annoying as can be, and you want to hit him, but I never caught myself thinking of him as anything less than a man who’d fallen prey to his pride. He’s a distinctly British character, and like everything in the novel, so charming in his jerkiness and his frustrating behavior that once you close the book, you can’t help but look back on him fondly.

In taking my course on the British Novel this semester, I keep coming back to Strange. It really is a great modern novel that’s a pastiche of the older writing styles of writers like Dickens and Austen. It’s hard to write a pastiche that doesn’t come off ironic or derivative, but somehow Clarke manages to find the perfect tone to show the sincerity and love that she clearly has for those writers. If you’ve got some time on your hands, bump Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell up to the top of your reading list and curl up with Clarke’s alternate vision of the history of England. It’ll be well worth your time.

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Sundry Items

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything on here, and since I have a free afternoon, I thought I’d spend some time writing.

I’ve been busy working this summer for a short-term missions organization, working with Junior and Senior high school students, so it’s been quite the summer so far. In spite of all that business though, I have had some time to get some reading done. In fact, I’ve got three books I’d like to review, and a fourth that I just started. We’ll see if that happens this weekend.

The book I just started though, is Mira Grant’s Feed. It’s a zombie tale that’s not quite post-apocalyptic so much as it’s post-disaster. Things are relatively contained at the start of the novel, and for the last 25 years, civilization’s been going decently well, and the U.S. is gearing up for a Presidential election. Things are about to get crazy, I assume, but for now, it’s pretty calm. I’ll give my opinion on the book once I’m finished, but I’d like to talk about some issues that have come up so far.

It’s a science fiction novel, rather than a fantasy, but unlike most zombie sf novels, the biological/medical reasons for the infection don’t seem to be the important part. The important idea, at least from what little I’ve gathered in the first 50 pages or so, is media and how it affects people with blogging and “old media” being the main topics. That and an article I read about the Casey Anthony trial made me think of just how much the changes in media are changing our day-to-day lives.

Anthony has been acquitted of murder, and has only been found guilty of lying to police. Now, I haven’t been near a television this summer, so I haven’t had a chance to follow the trial, but apparently news coverage has been so extensive (no surprise there), that people have become entirely convinced of Anthony’s guilt. Now I’m not one to say that we should trust the U.S. legal system without question, but honestly, what do we know? We know information that was collected by someone removed from the actual case, possibly reported by someone even further removed, and “analyzed” by us at home on our couches and desks.

The idea that Anthony is guilty is apparently so strong to some people, people who don’t know a single person involved in the case, mind you, that when she is released, her lawyers fear for her safety. There’s something wrong with this. If news organizations have become so enamored with the violent story of the moment that they can turn the trial of a formerly anonymous private citizen into one the size of O.J. Simpson’s, then there’s a problem.

This post isn’t very concise or thoughtful, but I just needed to get these thoughts out. Personally, I think the media has gone too far. And if I think that, is it hypocritical of me to write a post about it?

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Peace, by Gene Wolfe

When I sat down to write this (my first) blog post, I had planned to write a review of the novel Peace by my favorite author, Gene Wolfe. After thinking about the novel for a while though, I realized that this is going to be more of a response and a discussion of the book than an actual review.

The reason for this isn’t that I’m lazy or especially dumb, but just the way the book is laid out. In some respects, it is a simple story. It is the memoirs of a man, Alden Dennis Weer, who is writing about his life in the small Midwestern town he has lived in his whole life. He tells about his wealthy parents who had to flee to Europe for a few years after a child was accidentally pushed down the stairs and Den’s fifth birthday party; his eccentric aunt he lived with during that time and her four suitors, and his uncle and the orange juice processing plant he started which Den later becomes president of. Seems simple enough. But with Wolfe, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Den is not the most straightforward storyteller, and his senility or his stroke or his metaphysical displacement cause us to jump around from story to story in his life, sometimes jumping to three different time periods all on the same page. In this way, it is similar to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The smell of sulfur causes Den to think back to something in his childhood, and a fairytale he read as a boy reminds him of a conversation he had in his office in the 50’s, and so on.

Within all of that, Den hides things from us. He is purposefully vague and doesn’t like to conclude his stories when you expect him to. For example, at a party thrown by one of his Aunt Olivia’s suitors, two people tell a story (with many interruptions by the party-goers and by Den himself), and three quarters of the way through the second story, Den gets sidetracked and moves on. Nearly 100 pages later, a side-character off-handedly tells us the end of the story and the reader is expected to put the pieces together. In another example, the story of the young boy who fell down the stairs is never adequately explained. “How did Bobby Black fall down the stairs?” is a question that should be on everyone’s mind as they read through the book. The answer, never explicitly stated, adds a whole new layer of creepiness to the story.

The book is labeled a fantasy on the cover of the edition I have, and while there are certainly stories of fairies, banshees, genies, and mad scientists, they are only ever told as tales by other characters. It is quite possible to interpret this book as nothing more than the odd, rambling reminiscences of a senile and lonely old man. I don’t hold to that interpretation, but I think you could make a decent case for it.

I have to confess, Gene Wolfe is my favorite author. This is the eighth novel I’ve read by him, I’ve read probably two dozen short stories of his, and I have one more Wolfe novel waiting on my desk in my dorm room when I get back from Spring Break. I love Wolfe. But this book is good for anyone. Whether you enjoy science fiction or fantasy, or if you just like a challenging novel, I highly recommend this. It’s complex and difficult to get into for the first 30 pages or so, but it’s very rewarding in the end (though it lacks a bit of “payoff”). Sadly, it’s out of print now, but buy it if you can. It’s completely worth the read. Besides, I want to know what you think.

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