Literary discussions & book reviews.
After the death of Edward Gorey, brilliant writer and illustrator, Pomegranate Communications began re-printing some of Gorey’s most famous works. The Remembered Visit is one of these. You can even get postcards with some of his most well-known pages printed on them, also from Pomegranate.
The Remembered Visit contains no more than a few hundred words, but the story spans 64 pages because each sentence is beautifully illustrated in Gorey’s signature line style. Also typical of his style, there are pages devoted to illustrations and sentences that don’t seem to contribute anything to the plot. These are usually remarks on everyday activities, as if to lull the reader into a comfortable state where he or she can relate to the characters.
"Tea was brought: it was nearly colourless, and there was a plate of crystallized ginger."
The Remembered Visit is a very simple story about a young girl’s first experience of regret. She makes a promise to a new acquaintance whom she meets while traveling, and forgets to fulfill it until many years later, when it is too late. The stark simplicity with which Gorey renders this emotional story makes it easy to relate to. The details are so spare that the reader can replace Drusilla’s regrets with his or her own.
If you’re a Gorey fan, or if you’re exploring his works for the first time, check out the beautiful hardcover editions produced by Pomegranate. They’ve done justice to a late genius.
It makes me suspicious when a book’s most frequently quoted line is the very first line. This may mean that a book goes downhill after a glorious opening, or it could mean that the vast majority of readers don’t actually understand the book, and therefore resort to quoting the first line in the hope that it carries all the hidden meaning they failed to comprehend.
I’m also suspicious of books that are deemed “classics.” Twain had a point when he said that classics are books that everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read. A lot of the classics I encountered in school were tremendously impactful at the time of publication, but in the intervening years, that impact on the reader had waned a little. I have a hard time connecting to classics for two reasons. The first is that the very word ‘classic’ builds up my expectations. This book has remained popular for five centuries? Well then it must be good! The second reason is that I find it hard to connect to stories that spoke to the zeitgeist of the author’s era — an era that I did not live in and experience personally.
That was my attitude going into The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been hearing about this book for years. I’ve heard its first line quoted ad nauseum and several people have explained the premise to me. I picked up a copy of The Metamorphosis because Barnes & Noble Classics are cheap, and even though I struggle with classics, I feel like I should have a few on my bookshelf.
Everything I know about Russia I learned in my Canadian History and Canadian Politics classes. My poli-sci teacher was a bible-thumper that believed, quite literally, in the prophecy of Fatima that said Russia would bring about the anti-Christ. That colored his lessons on Russia a bit. My History teacher was a little fairer to the largest country in the world, but he still made sure his students knew exactly how many Russian civilians were worked to death in factories during WWII. I’m telling you this to put into context just how little I know about the culture and history of the country, and by exposing myself to its literature, I’m a newbie attempting to learn.
During part II of The Metamorphosis I was struck by the similarities between the way Gregor’s family reacts to his transformation and the way some families react to disabling injuries or illnesses. The mother frets, the father rejects, and the young female figure takes up the burden of care.
When other people described The Metamorphosis to me, they tended to focus on alienation as a theme. They were mostly young people, and they sympathized with Gregor’s difference, rejection, and psychological burden. I might have felt the same way if I’d read The Metamorphosis as a teenager, or if I didn’t grow up with a deformed spine, but reading it at this point in my life, my perception automatically gravitated toward the way the social group actively alienates.
If The Metamorphosis was comprised of only parts I and II, it’s likely I would recommend the book to others. Part III was what soured the whole experience for me. Once again I was reminded of the way illness and disability can affect family negatively — the Samsas let their burden become an excuse to dehumanize Gregor and devalue his loss. When I read the last scene I thought, “Are you kidding me? That’s terrible.”
I can see why it’s a classic because its themes are fairly enduring, but I can’t see why people enjoy this book.
The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo is accompanied by several companion stories, written in the style of fairytales and fables. The Too-Clever Fox is one of these, and is available for free online at Tor.com. Last year I reviewed another of Bardugo’s short stories, The Witch of Duva, on my other blog. I enjoyed The Too-Clever Fox and The Witch of Duva, but ultimately had the same issue with both: the ending was a cop-out.
The Too-Clever Fox is the story of the runt of the litter, Koja, whose quick thinking and clever tongue get him out of all sorts of conundrums. He survives a great deal and builds a strong network of forest friends through wit, guile, and thoughtful planning. When a ruthless hunter comes to the nearby village, killing many of his friends and kin, Koja puts a plan in motion to stop the hunter once and for all.
The point of The Too-Clever Fox, articulated in the final paragraph of the story, is that wisdom is better than cleverness. Basically, it’s better to know than to figure things out. It’s not a point I agree with, and its late emergence in the story bothers me a bit. I wish the thesis or theme of The Too-Clever Fox would have appeared sooner. The story is a detailed and gripping ride, but at the end it warps into something philosophical and not wholly satisfying.
As to the ending being a cop-out, I offer the same justification for my opinion that I did in my review of The Witch of Duva: I was raised on Grimm stories. The brothers pull no punches — if there’s opportunity for violence and gory deaths, then violence and gory deaths there shall be. The field was wide open for such a death in The Too-Clever Fox, but Bardugo allows the character to live. Maybe I’m just cruel, but I think the story would have been better served had the death taken place.
Bardugo is great at writing these fables and fairytales. She has a knack for immersing the reader in the world of the story and bringing it to life with detail and care. Her characters are interesting people, even when she draws from fairytale archetypes, and it’s easy to care about their lives. I would still recommend her stories to fans of fantasy and fables, but I do hope that she takes a lesson from the likes of George R.R. Martin and the Grimms, and learns how to maim/kill a few favourite characters.