Tag Archives: novel

Thoughts on “Half-Witch” by John Schoffstall

One of my best friends sent me this book as a gift, and since he is someone whose opinions on literature I highly value, I promptly added it to the reading list; but when I discovered that he was listed in the Acknowledgements for his assistance to the author, I moved it to the top of the proverbial pile.

The book is a fantasy story about two girls, Lizbet and Strix, who are on a quest to retrieve a magical book. Their travels take them to some unusual places and the adventures strengthen their bonds of friendship.

After overcoming some dangerous challenges, the two girls have an interesting exchange regarding storytelling.

“We are travelers from over the Montagnes du Monde,” Strix yelled. “We have wonderful tales to tell, of thrilling adventures in our strange, foreign land!”

“We do?” Lizbet said.

“You almost had your soul blown out of you, remember? We fought off a murderer?”

“Those weren’t thrilling,” Lizbet complained. “They were terrifying and horrible.”

“’Thrilling’ is when awful things happen to someone else,” Strix said. “’Horrible’ is when they happen to you.”

(p. 127)

The perspective of the audience is integral in the sharing of stories. The storyteller can try to elicit certain responses from the audience, but ultimately how a story is received depends upon the listener. An individual’s experiences, likes and dislikes, personality traits, and so forth, all contribute to how that person will respond to a particular story, which is why some genres appeal to some people while others do not.

In order to complete the quest, Lizbet had to allow herself to become infused with negative characteristics, which were later removed.

“Are you sure you got every last bit?” Lizbet shrugged her shoulders and stretched her chest. It creaked, and armor plates rang against each other. “I think I can still feel something I don’t like. Something biting and restless, that wants to fight for no reason.”

“I got it all,” Strix said. “But while it’s in you, it changes you. That can’t be helped. Everything you do molds you, and squeezes you into its shape. Your heart always has the imprint of everything you’ve done, everything you’ve been.” Her voice was pained.

(pp. 310 – 311)

This is true. We are the sum of all our experiences, whether they are good, bad, or indifferent. Every action we take, no matter how trivial it seems, has a direct and lasting impact on who we become. Nothing happens within a vacuum. It would serve us well to internalize this truth.

That’s about all I have to share regarding this book. It was a fun read and I am glad that this book made it my way. Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day.

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The Symbolism of the Doors in “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

This was probably my most anticipated book of 2019. A while back, I read The Night Circus by Morgenstern, which instantly became one of my favorite books and the one I most frequently recommend to people asking me for suggestions regarding books to read. I actually preordered this book so I could get it the day it was released. Now, with books that you have high expectations for, sometimes it is hard for them to meet those expectations. But while The Starless Sea is not as good as The Night Circus (a difficult book to surpass, in my opinion), it was still excellent and well worth the read.

The book is a tale rich with symbolism that traces a young man’s discovery and journey into a subterranean realm populated with stories.

Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals. Tales laid in tiles upon the floors, bits of plot worn away by passing feet. Legends carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers. Stories catalogued and cared for and revered. Old stories preserved while new stories spring up around them.

(p. 6)

This image symbolically describes the human collective unconscious, that vast repository populated with all the stories and myths that have existed or will come into being. Every writer, poet, artist, and musician seeks to tap into this reservoir of inspiration, and some, like Morgenstern here, attempt to describe it. But it can only be described symbolically, since the wellspring of artistic creativity is something that exists beyond our comprehension. But we all sense its presence, just below the surface of our psyches.

While art can be a reflection of the mystical source of consciousness, it also has the ability to draw the audience into the realm of the mystical through the use of symbols. The door is one of those symbols, representing the transitional space between ordinary reality and the deeper realms of the subconscious.

The son of the fortune-teller knows only that the door feels important in a way he cannot quite explain, even to himself.

A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.

He traces the painted lines of the key with his fingertips, marveling at how much the key, like the sword and the bee and the doorknob, looks as though it should be three-dimensional.

The boy wonders who painted it and what it means, if it means anything. If not the door, at least the symbols. If it is a sign and not a door, or if it is both at once.

In this significant moment, if the boy turns the painted knob and opens the impossible door, everything will change.

(p. 13)

Doors to the subconscious exist not only in art, but they can manifest spontaneously anywhere in the world, instantly transporting an unsuspecting individual into the proverbial Wonderland of an altered state of consciousness.

There are numerous doors in varying locations. In bustling cities and remote forests. On islands and on mountaintops and in meadows. Some are built into buildings: libraries or museums or private residences, hidden in basements or attics or displayed like artwork in parlors. Others stand freely without the assistance of supplemental architecture. Some are used with hinge-loosening frequency and others remain undiscovered and unopened and more have simply been forgotten, but all of them lead to the same location.

(p. 61)

There is a very subtle yet extremely important warning hidden in this passage. Morgenstern writes that some doors “are used with hinge-loosening frequency.” I interpret this as a caution to those who use consciousness-expanding drugs as a portal to glimpse the hidden realms of the subconscious. Just as doors can become unhinged, the human psyche can also become unhinged when thrown open too frequently through the use of certain chemicals. While it can be difficult to seek out the undiscovered doors in remote locations, it seems a much more prudent path for those seekers of deeper knowledge.

As William Blake famously asserted in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” The Starless Sea is yet another door for us to enter into the infinite and ineffable expanse of the human creative spirit. And now the wait begins for Ms. Morgenstern’s next novel.

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Thoughts on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was searching the tables in a book store a while back, as I am wont to do, and came across this book. I had read The Buried Giant by Ishiguro and loved it, so I decided to give this one a read, especially since it was one of the books that influenced the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.

The story follows a group of friends from a special school, whose students face a grim future. While the main plot of the story is thought-provoking, it is the subtle explorations of humanity that makes this an incredible work of art. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it, but I will say this deserves a spot on everyone’s “must read” list.

OK, let’s take a look at a few passages that stood out for me.

“But that wasn’t all,” Tommy’s voice was now down to a whisper. “What she told Roy, what she let slip, which she probably didn’t mean to let slip, do you remember, Kath? She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.”

(p. 175)

I have always believed this. Art provides a way for an individual to express aspects of their being that cannot be conveyed through standard conversation. And yes, stories and poems are comprised of words, just like common speech, but it is what is unsaid, the cadence of the language, the metaphors and symbolism, which all combine to allow the artist to share something so deep that only a poem or well-crafted story could possibly come close to imparting that hidden part of the self to another human being.

I’ve thought about those moments over and over. I should have found something to say. I could have denied it, though Tommy wouldn’t have believed me. And to try to explain the thing truthfully would have been too complicated. But I could have done something. I could have challenged Ruth…

(p. 195)

In this passage, Kathy is remembering how she participated in the psychological bullying of her friend Tommy by staying silent and not speaking up. It is a painful lesson that too many of us learn the hard way. I learned it when I was quite young. I had a friend named Mason, and one day, a kid who usually bullied me directed his anger and hatred toward my friend instead, and I did nothing, grateful for the respite from my own torment. But the real torment came afterwards, when Mason confronted me for not standing by him. I made some lame excuse, but he was wise enough to see right through it. It’s a memory that haunted me for a long time. But I learned a valuable lesson, that silence is not acceptable when facing injustice. Not taking action makes you just as guilty in the end.

“… You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? So she had to go.”

(p. 268)

This is the ultimate existential dilemma. We all know what’s in store for us. So what’s the point? Why struggle like Sisyphus? For me, it is precisely my lessons, my art, my writing, and my relationships with the people I love that give this life meaning. And in fact, knowing that death is inevitable makes me cherish my limited time here. It inspires me to do things that have lasting meaning and value. It’s not the end that matters. All ends are the same. It’s what you do while on the road that gives life meaning.

To sum up, this book is powerful, disturbing, inspiring, and elegantly written. If you have not read it, I highly recommend doing so. His Nobel Prize is certainly justified.

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Thoughts on “The Queen of the South” by Arturo Perez-Reverte

I found this book a while ago while visiting a university campus for an event. There was a display of books for the taking, asking a mere 25 cents each donation, so I picked this and a few others and left my dollar. I had decided to grab this one because I had read The Club Dumas by Perez-Reverte years ago and loved it, so I figured I would check this one out. It sat on my shelf for a while, but I finally started reading it. It took me a while to finish because of all the other stuff that’s been happening, but I finally completed it and am ready to share some thoughts.

The book is classified as an “intellectual thriller” and it’s about a woman who becomes involved in the drug trade and works her way up to a position of power. There’s a lot of intrigue, as well as some twists, which makes it an interesting read.

There are some psychological themes that are explored in the book, and I thought about focusing my blog post on those, but then I opted to write about another theme that is near and dear to my heart: books and reading.

While doing a stint in prison, Teresa, the protagonist, starts reading, which has a profound impact on her life.

“Books are doors that lead out into the street,” Patricia would tell her. “You learn from them, educate yourself, travel, dream, live other lives, multiply your own life a thousand times. Where can you get more for your money, Mexicanita? And they also keep all sorts of bad things at bay: ghosts, loneliness, shit like that. Sometimes I wonder how you people that don’t read figure out how to live your lives.”

(pp. 163 – 4)

While I believe that there are life lessons that you cannot learn from a book, I also believe that the knowledge and experience shared through books are indispensable when navigating life’s winding roads.

Reading, she’d learned in prison, especially novels, allowed her to inhabit her mind in a new way—as though by blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, she might witness her own life as if it were happening to somebody else. Besides teaching her things, reading helped her to think differently, or think better, because on the page, others did it for her. Although it was also true that with novels you could apply your point of view to every situation or character. Even to the voice that told the story: sometimes it would be that of the narrator, either with a name or anonymous, and sometimes it would be your own. She had discovered with surprise and pleasure that as she turned each page, the book was written, as though for the first time, all over again.

(p. 189)

While I don’t know if I believe that reading blurs the “boundaries between reality and fiction,” I think that reading acts as a mirror, that books reflect our human experiences and allow us to examine them from a new perspective. Additionally, we all bring our own experiences to what we read, and therefore, books and poems take on different meanings for different readers based upon their individual histories. But, like Teresa, I often project myself into stories that I read, and that feeling is what resonated strongly for me when I read this paragraph.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a book within them, waiting to be told. Essentially, we all have a hidden story, a personal tale, so to speak. This is a realization that Teresa has later in the book.

Then he poured more vodka, until the bottle was empty, and it occurred to Teresa that every human being has a hidden story, and that if you are quiet enough and patient enough you could finally hear it. And that that was good, a lesson that was important to learn. A lesson that was useful, above all.

(p. 244)

This is definitely true. If you listen and allow people the space to become comfortable, they will eventually share their story with you.

While I personally feel that The Club Dumas is a better book, this one is definitely worth reading. I also hear that there is a TV series based on this book. I may have to check that out.

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Thoughts on “The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman

This is the final book of Grossman’s trilogy, and he manages to maintain the power and intensity of the previous books. While part of me wishes the saga would continue, this really is the right place to stop.

I took a couple pages of notes while reading, so I could ramble on about this, but since brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll keep this post short and focused. I’ll focus on how the book corresponds to the biblical books of Genesis and Revelation.

So there are two big themes in this book: the creation of a world, and the destruction of a world. These are also the themes that are the focuses of Genesis and Revelation, respectively. In addition, Grossman also weaves in the symbolism of the death and rebirth of a god, which connects the two central themes and hearkens to Frazer’s work, The Golden Bough.

Quentin comes into possession of an ancient spell, and it takes him a while to decipher it. But once he does, he realizes it is a spell to create a small world, essentially speaking a world into being. This is the magick of God in Genesis, but on a smaller scale. Yet even though this is on a smaller scale, Quentin is taking a step toward becoming godlike through his ability to create.

This was a spell that created something. It was a spell for making a land.

He actually laughed out loud when he thought of it. It was too funny—too insane. But now that he saw it he couldn’t un-see it. He could follow it like a story that wound crookedly through the various sections and paragraphs and subclauses of the spell like a thread of DNA. This thing was intended to make a little world.

(p. 249)

Contrasting Quentin’s creation of a new world, we see the apocalyptic end to another world, with imagery and direct references to Revelation.

The chaos itself was momentarily, unfairly beautiful. The thrashing sun, the spinning, looping moon. Fillory half light and half shadow, dotted with flashes of fire, lava and flame and magical strikes from magical beings. Ignorant armies clashing by night.

It’s like Revelation, she thought. It’s Revelation, and I’m the Scarlet Woman.

(p. 339)

But the deeper mysticism here is that dying worlds can be reborn, but this cosmic rebirth requires the ultimate sacrifice: the death of a god. This is the mythology that Frazer explores in his masterwork, and Grossman makes reference to this mythology as the world of Fillory is about to die.

It was the oldest story there was, the deepest of all the deeper magicks. Fillory didn’t have to die, it could be renewed and live again, but there was a price, and the price was holy blood. It was the same in all mythologies: for a dying land to be reborn, its god must die for it. There was power in that divine paradox, the death of an immortal, enough power to restart the stopped heart of a world.

(pp. 377 – 378)

And with the death of the old god, the world is renewed, ushering in the new age.

“… Things are different now. It’s a new age.”

(p. 394)

These books have definitely earned their place in the upper echelon of the fantasy genre. I suspect that I may read them again someday, hence they now have a prominent spot on my bookshelf. In the meantime, I’ll indulge myself by watching the TV adaptation of the trilogy.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff!

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Thoughts on “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

As I am drafting this post on Grossman’s second installment in the trilogy, I am already well into the third and final book. These books are like crack for nerds who are into reading. I suspect that my thoughts on the third book will follow hot on the heels of this post.

This book is another version of the archetypal hero’s journey, but not at all hackneyed. It is full of current references to popular culture and it reads very well. Reading a page in this book is like eating one Dorito chip. You read it, and the next thing you know, a quarter of the book is gone.

“You wish to be a hero, but you do not know what a hero is. You think a hero is one who wins. But a hero must be prepared to lose, Quentin. Are you? Are you prepared to lose everything?”

(p. 179)

This quote really had a visceral effect on me. When I think back on the literature I’ve read regarding the hero myths, every hero loses something, and most of them lose a part of themselves. You cannot head out on a quest and expect to return the same person you were at the onset. Every hero must sacrifice in order to attain their goal. And even those who choose not to make the sacrifice after stepping on the path, they have still lost something, and likely that something is a more painful loss that that sacrifice which was asked for.

The hero’s quest is symbolic for a deep, often spiritual, transformation. And all transformations require the sloughing of the outer shell of the self to reveal the deeper aspects of the individual.

At one point in the book, Quentin discusses his quest with Ember, a god of the realm of Fillory. While it is a common trope in the hero myth for the hero to seek guidance from a divine being, what is interesting about this interaction is that the god Ember provides insight into the role of an individual on a quest, and how the quest ultimately transforms that person.

“I do not think you understand, my child. There are things a man must do, that a god may not. He who completes a quest does not merely find something. He becomes something.”

Quentin stopped, blowing, hands on hips. The horizon to the east was a solid band of orange now. The stars were going out.

“What’s that? What does he become?”

“A hero, Quentin.”

(p. 251)

Reading into what is implied here, the god is letting Quentin know that by pursuing the quest, something which he must do, that he will suffer a great loss. It is inevitable. No transformation can be complete unless the individual lets go of something important, whether by choice or by circumstance.

I’m intentionally keeping this post short, so as not to include any spoilers. I definitely recommend this book, and the entire trilogy.

Click here to read my review of the first book in the series: The Magicians.

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Thoughts on “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

I’ve had my eye on this trilogy for a while. Everyone I know who has read Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy has raved about it. I’m just always hesitant to commit to a trilogy. But at last, I bought the first book and read it, and I have to say that it certainly lived up to all the hype.

Basically, Grossman takes aspects from some of the best fantasy books and weaves together a tale that is unique, yet seems familiar. I had impressions of Harry Potter, Narnia, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings. But there is also a modern edginess to the book, which works well in my opinion.

There is a lot that can be explored in this text—addiction, power, corruption, escapism—just to name a few. But since brevity is the soul of wit, I’m just going to focus this post on the topics of magic and the multiverse.

Early in the book, Quentin enters a school of magic, and one of the professors offers an interesting definition of magic.

“The study of magic is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Magic is a craft. When we do magic, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change to the world.”

(p. 48)

This definition resembles Aleister Crowley’s, which states that magick is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” And as Quentin continues his studies, he learns that the actual practice of magic is quite difficult, and is not something that comes easily, which is how magic is often depicted in books.

One thing had always confused Quentin about the magic he had read about in books: it never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorized the incantation—or you just read it off the page, if that was too much trouble—you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words—and just like that the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture—just another skill you could learn. It took some time and effort, but compared to doing calculus, say, or playing the oboe—well, there really was no comparison. Any idiot could do magic.

Quentin had been perversely relieved when he learned that there was more to it than that.

(pp. 148 – 149)

As a writer, I understand that words are just symbols intended to represent aspects of our reality. Which is why I was intrigued by a passage that asserts that magic somehow dissolves the boundaries that exist between language and reality, that it merges the symbol and that which the symbol represents into a single form.

“But somehow in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

(pp. 216 – 217)

After graduating the school of magic, one of the young magicians, Penny, discovers a way to access parallel dimensions of reality, or what theoretical physics would call the multiverse. He terms this portal to the other dimensions the City (also Neitherlands), which seems like a type of matrix that allows one to pass from one reality to another. Penny goes on to explain to his friends what this means to our limited view of reality.

“The thing is, the more I study it, the more I think it’s exactly the opposite—that our world has much less substance than the City, and what we experience as reality is really just a footnote to what goes on there. An epiphenomenon.”

(p. 250)

Penny proposes exploring an alternate world (Fillory), which was described in a book that the other young magicians had all read. Quentin is reluctant, but Penny pushes the issue, stressing that the exploration of hidden dimensions is truly the greatest quest that humans can embark upon.

“So what?” Penny stood up. “So. What. So what if Fillory doesn’t work out? Which it will? So we end up somewhere else. It’s another world, Quentin. It’s a million other worlds. The Neitherlands are the place where the worlds meet! Who knows what other imaginary universes might turn out to be real? All of human literature could just be a user’s guide to the multiverse! Once I marked off a hundred squares straight in one direction and never saw the edge of this place. We could explore for the rest of our lives and never begin to map it all. This is it, Quentin! It’s the new frontier, the challenge of our generation and the next fifty generations after that!”

(p. 260)

As Hamlet so eloquently put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I strongly suspect that there are multiple universes existing beyond our current scope of perception, and just maybe, ancient mystical arts once provided glimpses of these hidden realms. It certainly warrants further exploration. If we dismiss ideas and potential knowledge because they conflict with our present paradigms, we are doing so at our own risk.

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