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Regrettably Not a Wilderness Wednesday

What I've Finished Reading

The outside was like her dream. The grasses were dull with dew, the lake skummed with mist. The western sky was gray, the mountains almost lost in cloud. But watch though she would, no things almost seen plied the misty air, no voices piped. Even the birds were silent now. Nothing moved in earth or sky. And the only sun she would ever see from this window would be setting. Laura began to shiver again. Almost anything could have happened to Ruth and Ellen in a place that had such dreams and such mornings.

An important life lesson from Pamela Dean's The Secret Country: always make your fantasy self-inserts as much like you as possible, so that when your imaginary world grabs you by the ankle and drags you into its intrigues, you won't have to come up with on-the-fly explanations for why all your competencies have vanished and you're suddenly not left-handed any more.

“Aren't there wolves?” asked Laura, who was determined to have the sword.
“Not this near to the well,” said Ted. “It's a protection against normal dangers. It'd rather zap you itself.”
“Who thought that up?” asked Patrick.
“Ellen, probably,” said Ted. “All the really weird ideas about things that don't matter are hers.”
“Some of them seem to matter now,” said Patrick.
“I wish we hadn't been so thorough,” lamented Ted.
“Mom says it's a virtue to be thorough,” observed Laura.
“That's just to get you to clean your closet.”
“It is a virtue when you're finding out about things,” said Patrick. “But not when you're making them up.”
“Sure it is,” said Laura. “It makes it more fun.”
“But it's not fun now.”

The Secret Country is a strange book. Intermittently it's a beautifully-written one. I found myself enamored of its strangeness even when I found it hard to engage with as a work of fiction, which was most of the time. Five cousins accidentally breach the border of their imaginary Secret Country, where their supporting characters mistake them for their alter egos, chide them for wearing outlandish clothes (contemporary 1980s activewear), and ply them with unpalatable food. They spend most of the book trying to work out the rules of the world and its border with the “real” one. They know (because it was part of the game) that a war is brewing, but it's not quite the war they invented. Things are changing. Are they still in control?

This is the first book of a trilogy, and it ends on a note of anxiety, no closure. When will I get to the next one? That depends on whether or not the library has them.

What I'm Reading Now

In Clea, more Important Traits of Women (And Other Important Truths):

Liza used to say, "But its very perfection makes one sure that it will come to an end." She was right, but women will not accept time and the dictates of the death-defying second. They do not see that civilisation is simply a great metaphor which describes the aspirations of the individual soul in collective form -- as perhaps a novel or a poem might do.

I have to admit the aphorists have my number here, as far as not seeing the giant metaphor thing goes. Also:

But alas! Civilisations die in the measure that they become conscious of themselves. They realise, they lose heart, the propulsion of the unconscious motive is no longer there. Desperately, they begin to copy themselves in the mirror. It is no use. But surely there is a catch in all this. Yes, Time is the catch! Space is a concrete idea, but Time is abstract. In the scar tissue of Proust's great poem you see that so clearly, his work is the great academy of the time-consciousness. But being unwilling to mobilise the meaning of time he was driven to fall back on memory, the ancestor of hope!

I like it when people talk about Proust, ok. It's surprising to me that the back-cover blurbs (on all these books) are so effusive about the "fleshiness" & sensuousness of the Quartet when what keeps striking me about it is how every stab at physicality is immediately muffled by yards and yards of philosophizing. Not undermined, but caught up and tangled. Our aphorists keep hitting the sheets or the pavement for a second and a half before getting hopelessly spiderwebbed in their own anxious aphorisms. No one can buy groceries or sweep the floor because it's impossible to fumble past the layers of self-analysis long enough to open a cashbox or pick up a broom. So the city is always an overheated lyric about itself, love is a series of stand-up routines about love, and writers write endlessly to other writers about the impossibility of writing about writers, love, and the city while making indulgent quips about all three. Which I guess is just the way life is sometimes.

I think by now my flist is sicker of Lawrence Durrell (and his fictional alter ego, Not Lawrence Durrell) than I am. Really there's a lot here that I love and a lot more I'm interested in without really understanding. The format is difficult for me - I don't mean the palimpsest thing, which is great, but the way it swerves from sharp intelligent lyric to stilted quipfest and back three times in a paragraph, and the way everyone just keeps solipsistically rattling off their Thoughts on Yaoi like Twitter feeds passing in the night. Some of the aphorisms are good or funny, some are nonsensical, but there are so many that it's hard not to feel annoyed by even the good ones, in much the same way that I am a great fan of bees but would object to being covered in them at all times. But unlike that hypothetical beemantle, I don't hate the Lawrence Durrell Experience; I've enjoyed it, for the most part. I keep wondering if there was a time in the past when I could have appreciated him better, but I doubt it. Maybe I need to get a little older.


Also The Count of Monte Cristo through Ch. 105: [Here Be Spoilers]

To the world and to his servants Danglars assumed the character of the good-natured man and the indulgent father. This was one of his parts in the popular comedy he was performing -- a make-up he had adopted and which suited him about as well as the masks worn on the classic stage by paternal actors, who seen from one side, were the image of geniality, and from the other showed lips drawn down in chronic ill temper. Let us hasten to say that in private the genial side descended to the level of the other, so that generally the indulgent man disappeared to give place to the brutal husband and domineering father.

I've mentioned earlier that I love the conference between Danglars and his daughter that happens in Chapter 96. It's so neatly characterized: Eugenie is totally alien to Danglars in some ways and her father's daughter in others, dissembling and a little ruthless. You can clearly see how much she's learned by growing up under his roof. I've been rooting for Eugenie since she showed up, but this chapter made me love her. She is plotting, as we soon learn, to run away with her devoted friend Louise d'Armilly shortly after signing a marriage contract with Andrea/Benedetto; the latter's impending arrest for murder only makes her job easier. Eugenie cuts her hair and puts on dashing masculine attire, exciting the admiration of her friend (and me, the reader), and off they go, bantering adorably along the way! The Count of Monte Cristo, of course, has assisted with the passport. Coincidence brings them to the same tavern where Benedetto goes to flee from the law; Benedetto threatens to tell Eugenie's father where she is, but it doesn't seem to have come to anything and Eugenie and Louise seem to be safely in Brussels now.

Meanwhile, Valentine learns the identity of her poisoner! and Monte Cristo has a VERY DANGEROUS SCHEME for exposing the killer and rescuing Valentine. It's that potion from Romeo and Juliet that makes everyone think you're dead so you can run away - I'm pretty sure? Let's hope this doesn't lead to any hilarious horrible misunderstandings like it did in R&J. Meanwhile, Danglars is trying out different stories about what happened to Eugenie. Did she go to stay with relatives? Is she entering a convent? Which one sounds more plausible and respectable? This is a small touch that I really liked. Monte Cristo has chosen a very inconvenient moment to demand five million francs out of that line of credit he established with Danglars, not at all coincidentally.

There are twelve chapters left in this book! Who will live? Who will die? Next week will tell, maybe.

What I Plan to Read Next

It's Golden Notebook time! - or at least it will be, probably, by the end of the week. Plus a lot of Christmas presents and some bookstore orphans, and I'm planning to use my gift card to buy myself the last of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, FINALLY. I know I'm not supposed to buy new books right now, but this one is both inevitable and long overdue.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 28th, 2016 09:24 pm (UTC)
I was behind a chapter in Monte Cristo so I had to catch up before I read your entry! OH VALENTINE, it's amazing how Dumas makes her discover of her poisoner suspenseful EVEN THOUGH we have known it was Madame de Villefort basically since she started toodling around asking the Count about poisons.

I'm hoping that the Count has read Romeo and Juliet - surely he has! he's so cultured! - and takes the obvious precaution of telling Morrel what has happened at the first possible opportunity. Do you think he smuggled Eugenie through the wall while he was supposedly praying over her body? It would explain why Noirtier is so strangely peaceful later on.

Also Danglars trying out possible stories to explain Eugenie's disappearance is excellent. I love that he's doing it even as he plans to disappear himself; the habit of dissimulating is so deeply engrained in him that he's doing it even when it couldn't possibly matter.

The Secret Country is such a weird book. The total lack of an ending, the lack even of anything resembling a normal plot - it doesn't even try to pretend it's self-contained; it's just like "Nope, this is the first book in a trilogy."

The later books do have a bit more closure, but I don't think endings have ever been Pamela Dean's strong suit.
Dec. 29th, 2016 01:08 am (UTC)
the habit of dissimulating is so deeply engrained in him that he's doing it even when it couldn't possibly matter.

SO TRUE. And yes! How is this discovery still suspenseful? Through the magic of DRAMA, I guess.

I don't know if I'm even willing to say that the ending of The Secret Country is weak, or that it shouldn't be inconclusive - it's just strange! The whole book is so strange! The back-cover biography has Dean telling an interviewer about her impetus to write it, how she wanted to write secondary-world stories like the ones she loved when she was ten, but wanted them to be just as rich and deep on reread as they seemed when she was a child. Hence the kids spending a tremendous amount of time figuring out the rules and being confused and disappointed - at least I'm guessing that's why.

It's impossible to tell, because I'm no longer ten, but it's hard to imagine The Secret Country working that way for me as a ten-year-old. From my adult perspective it works like fanfiction (I don't use fanfiction in a derogatory way, of course - just that "having read that sort of book" feels like it's a prerequisite for understanding and enjoying this one). It reads like a book that's about other books. Which might be a false distinction, because aren't all books about other books? I don't know what I'm getting at here. Part of me loved the weirdness, but I also kept sort of looking over my shoulder at the ten-year-old self who was rapidly losing patience. . .
Dec. 29th, 2016 01:22 am (UTC)
All of Dean's books are books about other books, full of quotes and metatextual references and goodness knows what else, but I think it's particularly strong in The Secret Country. Would the book make sense at all to someone who didn't grow up with Narnia and the idea of portal fantasy? It's fanfic not so much of a particular book but of the genre itself.

As an adult I find it fascinating, but I think my ten-year-old self would be sitting with your ten-year-old self in the grumpy corner, totally lost and losing patience with all this difficult-to-understand dialog and nit-picking attention to detail taking place where the Adventure ought to be.
Dec. 29th, 2016 03:51 am (UTC)
Dec. 29th, 2016 05:33 pm (UTC)
in much the same way that I am a great fan of bees but would object to being covered in them at all times.

This is the best metaphor I've read all day. :D
Dec. 29th, 2016 11:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks :D I'll put it in an envelope and send it to Lawrence Durrell; he doesn't have enough metaphors yet!

(j/k he totally has enough)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


blase ev

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