Category Archives: You’ve Got to Check This Out

Jo Walton

Part 2

But Farthing was not a genre novel. If you don’t understand what I mean or feel insulted by my description, then hear me out. When we classify books by genre, we are almost always placing a mental sticker on the cover that declares this work of art is only for people who like this sort of thing. Consider a blatant exception: I feel no need to warn someone that Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel. Half the covers I have seen for the book don’t play up that aspect either.

In short, read Farthing because it’s a damn good book.

Jumping in the deep end vs. easing into the shallows

Then, there is Tooth and Claw. Serendipity is disturbing like fate and fervor, except that it at least admits that probability is in favor of the human mind seeing relationships where none exist. I had recently gotten into Anthony Trollope because it seemed like time for another long novel. Watch enough BBC and you feel a little guilty about not knowing enough about Victorian literature. Essentially, Tooth and Claw is Trollope with dragons. Mind you, I don’t mean that the Earl of Dang-on-Blast’It discovers a dragon in his estate cave; I mean that the Earl is a dragon, as are all the major characters, especially the Parson. I don’t think you need to be a fan of Thackeray and Trollope to see the humor here. Surprisingly, the drama is quite affecting as well.

I recently finished My Real Children, which I did not entirely enjoy. That’s less a complaint than a statement of fact. The book deeply touched me, perhaps because it reflected so many experiences of the late middle-aged life in the here and now. Walton captured all the fears and joys somehow. The ending left me contemplative and a little confused, though that may be the result of my difficulty parsing it all out. I resent books with crap endings, but only if the rest of the book felt dependent on a crackerjack finale. My Real Children ended like life, which can be a crap ending, no doubt. We use art to escape that reality, but some art earns the right to let us contemplate those matters we wish to avoid.

I recommend Tooth and Claw because it’s a fantastic read and I recommend My Real Children because it’s an overwhelming experience.

Which is the thing with art and figuring out what to read next

For me, I find the description that such-and-such a book is “rip-roaring or crackerjack probably means that the work will be entertaining. Or it is meant to hide the fact that the work is so many empty calories with nice packaging. However, as with so much else in life, you can tell pretty quickly when you’re wasting your time.

On the other hand, I have no idea when a work of art touches my emotions whether or not I am all alone there. Artists are forever saying “if my work reaches just one person…” Well, I’m here to tell you that being that one person can make for some uncomfortable touches. Wipe away tears at the movies and look around to see all dry eyes and you’re going to wonder if something is wrong with you. To be precise, I don;t know if I can recommend a work of art because of my feelings. It’s not that I don’t trust them, but that I don’t trust yours.

Perhaps that is the real problem critics have. They need find a way to their readers’ brains because they have no idea where their heart might be. Maybe that’s why we all struggle to define great art- because we feel this need to explain it when we know that the definition is locked away deep inside the parts of ourselves that we’d just as soon not share with the world… a sharing which is the purview of the artist and not the critic.

Jo Walton

Part 1

I was reading somewhere recently where the author commented on the fact that everyone’s memory does not work the same way. Perhaps one person gets the details of facts while another associates everything with smells. While someone might be able to visualize entire events, others just see a morass when they think back. I should have realized this a long time ago when a school teacher with a flair for experimenting on students quizzed everyone in my class on what we remembered from pages in a book that she showed us. For whatever reason, her point was that some of us had perfect memory of the layout and pictures while others struggled to remember much of anything. She concluded with the comment that people who did well at the exercise tended actually to have poor recall of anything longer than a few minutes. She condemned those of us with so-called “photographic” memories to lifetimes of living in the recent past.

In retrospect, I think she just wanted to take some of us down a few pegs. Also, I seem to remember that incident well enough. At least, I think so. Of course, I have no idea what author it was that I mention at the beginning of this abundant paragraph, so maybe that teacher was right.

Too many books

Allow me to digress a little longer before I try to explain what all this has to do with my purported topic. I hold two conflicting fears close at hand most of the time. Years ago, some newspaper article about the Library of Congress pointed out how many books the institution held. Also, they commented on how long a person might need to live in order to read them all. They measured that time in multiple lifetimes.

I had never before felt so inadequate. Before the explosion in self-distribution wrought by technological innovation in the last couple decades, I thought I had a shot at consuming most of the great television, film or music. All those ships have long since sailed also. Unfortunately, that sense of inadequacy compounds into a creeping paralysis that leads to surfing the Netflix menu. The second and conflicting fear is that I will discover that everything left unabsorbed is crap. Rephrased, there is nothing new under the sun.

In short, I worry that there are too many books and not enough. Who says people can’t hold two conflicting notions in their head at the same time?

Too little time

Wary of wasting my time, I tend to make snap judgments about the potential pleasure that I will get out of spending my time with a particular book or any work of art. If the thing under consideration is free (or seemingly so, like streaming on Netflix), then I will sample it. The other day, we almost made it ten minutes into an execrable science fiction film. Otherwise, I make a choice based on available knowledge at the time. The museum sounds like a reasonable investment of time and money because of the guidebook and word of mouth. The book looks promising because of the blurb and the price is right.

Not so long ago, I stumbled on Farthing by Jo Walton, the first book in her Small Change series. It is an alternate history trilogy about the Second World War. I devoured out and quickly moved on to the rest of the series. I probably qualify as a fan of alternative history books, considering that I have read a remarkable number of them. Even so, I still have a knee jerk reaction to any summary that refers to a potential purchase in those terms.

Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb

More music that would not fit into the run of You’ve Got to Check This Out: