Saturday, 6 October 2007
Fantastic Books and Where to Find Them
Finishing a long and engaging book always leaves me in a slump, not knowing what to do next, let alone read next. I turned the last page of Ink this morning, so I am feeling even more steam-rollered than usual. (I don't know why I love Hal Duncan's writing, but I do. I never have a clue what's going on, owing to his disdain for such petty trivialities as a clearly signalled beginning, middle and end, but somehow it doesn't matter. His subject is Story, and repetition and love, and his books like a grand scrapbook of all the things you've ever half-heard, half-remembered, all skewed out of true, and so very compelling. Not for the easily offended, I would add. Which I could actually say about a lot of the books I mentioned. I don't go for sweetly pretty tales).
And in this post-epic lull, I'm examining my attitude to Sci-Fi and Fantasy (I've never been entirely clear about the distinction, and they're usually in the same section of the bookshop anyway, that testosterone-ridden wasteland where a fashionably dressed female feels deeply out of place). As an impossibly arrogant adolescent I despised Fantasy. I read Literature (and The Lord of the Rings, but I first read that aged 9 or so, so I excused it as a children's book that I still enjoyed, like the Chalet School series. Only with fewer Middles and more Hobbits). This is why I haven't met Terry Pratchett when I so easily could have - my friend (and first love) R and I were the star English students of our year, so we were asked to be the prize pupils at the re-opening of the school library, opened by a certain Mr T Pratchett. No thank you very much, we said, and vowed never to read any of his works. Hmm. I can't speak for R, but within 18 months I was devouring all the Discworld novels I could find, and saving up to buy them as soon as they came out. I still didn't read Fantasy though, I was quite clear about that. Fantasy was for nasty Science types, not for a straight-A student of literature in three languages.
Some Fantasy crept in, particularly when I met Chris, and discovered that not all Science types were nasty. In other respects, he conformed to the stereotype in his choice of reading, but I was a poor student, starving for books. Hence I have read far more Anne McCaffrey, Tad Williams and David Eddings than I care to admit to, and developed an allergy to dragons and names with apostrophes ran'domly inserted into them (though it did make sense of some of the jokes in early Pratchett). I developed a more mature attitude to Fantasy. I still despised it, but could be confident that this was from a secure standpoint of having actually read some.
But then my best friend L interfered with my comfortable snobbery. We'd already established that we had pretty much identical taste in books (and even more fortunately, didn't start off with all that much overlap - the only thing better than discovering someone who loves all the same books as you do is discovering someone who loves enough of the same books that you trust their judgement absolutely, but who has also got a whole library's worth of new books to recommend). I found myself having to venture into the Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelves more and more to find her recommendations (or resorting to Amazon's plain brown packaging). She is responsible for quite a lot of the random selection photographed above (I really need to tidy up a bit. you have no idea how many contortions it took to not capture the general chaos behind the nice neat piles of books). She even managed to get through my previously-mentioned dragon allergy and made me read Temeraire. Which I must re-read, because it was what I took into hospital in June when I had my wisdom teeth out, and between the bit before the operation when random doctors and nurses kept introducing themselves (I never saw a single one of them again) and the period after emerging from the anaesthetic when I thought I was awake but may not have been, I'm not entirely clear what actually happened in the book, and not in a Hal Duncan, this-is-how-it's-supposed-to-be way. I enjoyed it though. She's also responsible for the presence in the pile of Neal Stephenson, Garth Nix, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Mary Gentle - although I haven't actually read Ash yet, it comes so impeccably recommended that I decided to include it anyway.
But Fantasy isn't just confined to one special section of the bookshop, where the misfits can be safely corralled. It's everywhere. Marie Phillips' The Gods Behaving Badly imagines what might happen if the Greek pantheon found themselves living in retirement in north London - the answer is just about anything, most of it hysterically funny. But it's in the main Fiction section, or at least, I assume it will be, once it's stopped being on the New Fiction £2 Off Signed By the Author excitably stickered section. Margaret Atwood has got to be Literature, and even Archbishops read Philip Pullman.
Fantasy is fundamental to fiction. The two earliest works of extended story in the western world are the Iliad and Odyssey, the War Story (with quite a lot of Love Story in there) and the Fantasy Epic (no dragons, but plenty of other weird beasties). And isn't all fiction fantasy anyway? The definition of fiction is to tell a story that isn't actually true, after all. It's just that some authors wear their dragons on their sleeves, as it were. I'm not sure I've entirely stopped being snobbish about Fantasy. There are still some books filed in that section that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, but I could say that about any section of the bookshop or library. I still feel a little out of place there, don't know quite what I'm looking for, and rely on the recommendations of others, whereas in the main fiction section I feel reasonably confident that I can choose a book for myself without any advice. But I can no longer say that I don't read Fantasy.
In other news, for the benefit of members of my family (and any others interested), I have found a replacement for the much-missed lebkuchen chocolate hearts with a jammy bit in the middle.
The above can be found in the Polish section of Tesco, and are gorgeous. If your Tesco doesn't have a Polish section, try moving to a depressed area on the road to nowhere whose economy, such as it is, is based on factory farming and tourism.