Tag Archives: re-reading

Game of Thrones: Who can Play?

I’m (re) reading the four books in the Song of Ice and Fire Series, A.K.A. Game of Thrones. Yes, re-reading. I first read the books a couple of years ago. I thought the fifth book would be out in paperback by now, but the release has been pushed back to the end of October. When people expressed shock at certain wedding events in the TV show I thought, if you’d read the books, you’d know that.

I’ve been thinking a little bit analytically about this set of books. I’m trying to figure out why Martin chooses the particular Point of View characters he does. In A Feast For Crows most of the POV characters are female. Now I don’t think that GoT has a particularly feminist outlook, but at least women get air-time and are doing both traditional and non-traditional things. I wondered this week if Martin chooses characters with an obvious weakness for his POV set. Robb is never a POV character — and he is an eldest son, and King in the North. Underdogs, those fighting for power seem to prevail in the POV characters. Any thoughts?

Also, I read somewhere (though I cannot remember exactly where, and cannot find the reference) that GoT has no redeeming virtues. It is an un-redeemed world, a world steeped in sin. I’ve been looking for the redeeming features. There are signs that the resurrection is part of the world. And we haven’t got to the end yet, so redemption may yet come. I’m finding this search for redemption is also an interesting thing to think about in my re-reading.

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A Fan Letter

Dear Miss Austen,

Allow me to congratulate you on Pride and Prejudice, in print this day for 200 years. I have read almost all of your fine works, and confess that I return most often to Pride and Prejudice, and take solace in the company of the Bennets and their connections. Miss Elizabeth, or as I should call her, Mrs. Darcy, is a friend whose company I enjoy greatly.

I wonder if you know, Miss Austen, that many writers have written books about the Bennets and the Darcys that follow the events you portrayed so admirably in Pride and Prejudice? I do not think that you would approve of all of the efforts of your admiring fans. You might, however, enjoy Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder mystery involving Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and their close connections. The cosy murder mystery is a genre, that, had you known it, you might have enjoyed writing.

I hope that you eventually receive my congratulations, and in some way come to know what an enormous influence you have had upon the imaginations of millions of people.

Allow me to remain your

Dedicated Fan.

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Familiar Books while Moving

As previously mentioned in this space, I am moving. While I think this is a good thing, it is an unsettling process to move. Moves involve culling books and possessions, encountering new people and situations, and adjusting one’s schedule and routines. While I’m not moving a huge distance (just over 3 km by any road route), there is a certain amount of chaos and instability in the process. In an attempt to keep some things in my world familiar, I’m my current read is a re-read. The book I chose to re-read for this move is Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, partially because I’d been thinking about it all summer. I’m not sure exactly why I was thinking about this book all summer long. Little snatches of the book kept popping into my head. It wasn’t always the same scene either. Haiku opens the book, so someone trying to write a poem would remind me of Bobby Shaftoe (really, that’s a character in the book) and his cultural exchange with Goto Dengo that began in a sushi bar. The book centres on code-breaking and information processing, and for some reason that kept coming into my head over the summer. The settings, cross-country drives, banking crises, all these made me think of Cryptonomicon. So I’m re-reading it.

I love re-reading this book as it has so many things, including theological references, in it that I haven’t seen yet. There is a lot in this one. Here is a theological reference I saw last night for the first time. Bobby Shaftoe meets his detachments chaplain while in a large meat locker (“the size and temperature of Greenland”) separating a frozen pig corpse from a frozen human corpse (long story):

They are all working away silently when a new voice interrupts. “Dear Lord,” the voice begins, as they all look up to see a man standing nearby, hands clasped prayerfully. His words, sacramentally condensed into an outward and visible cloud of steam, veil his face. His uniform and rank are obscured by an Army blanket thrown over his shoulders. He’d look like a camel-riding Holy Land prophet if he were not clean-shaven and wearing Rape Prevention Glasses.

That whole sacramentally condensed words part is great!

The last time I moved I re-read Girl Meets God. The time before that, it was The Bourne Identity. The first book I read in the apartment I moved into before that was a new book to me, Contact by Carl Sagan. It was a connection with my aerospace engineering past as I moved into my seminary and theological education future.

What books do you chose during unstable times?

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Movies before Books?

Sometimes a movie points me to a book. On the weekend I watched “The Hours” which I quite enjoyed. I know the movie is based on a book (The Hours by Michael Cunningham) which is based on a book (Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf). So many layers. Anyhow, I’ve read neither The Hours, nor Mrs. Dallowaybut now I’m much more likely to read both. I watched “Possession” before even realizing there was a book called Possession by A.S. Byatt, and now I think that is the Best Book Ever. The BBC serial adaptation of Pride and Prejudice helped me re-read the book by Jane Austen which I’d initially thought tedious. That book gets better every time I read it.

Which movies enhance your enjoyment of books or introduced you to books?


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Re-reading Science Fiction?

In a previous post I linked to an essay about re-reading books in a reliable Canadian newspaper. The author of the essay claimed never to have re-read any science fiction, and was quite content that this should continue to be the case. In the list of authors he thought were unworthy of re-reading he included William Gibson. Today as I read Count Zero by William Gibson, I came across this passage which follows the description of a nightmare:

“She woke in the coffee-scented morning and saw the squares of sunlight spread across the books on Andrea’s table, heard Andrea’s comfortingly familiar morning cough as she lit a first cigarette from the stove’s front burner. She shook off the dark colors of the dream and sat up on Andrea’s couch, hugging the dark red quilt around her knees.”

What’s wrong with that? Who wouldn’t call those two sentences literature? Anyone who can set a scene so clearly ought to be re-read. I say this as one who has only recently come to the works of Mr. Gibson, and therefore have not re-read any of them. I am thoroughly enjoying my first reads, and several of Gibson’s works have survived the Great Library Cut before the Great Move of 2012.

I’ve re-read other works of science fiction, and don’t find that they suffer on re-reading. Some of the works gain on re-reading, much as you would expect from any good book. Others don’t stand up to the scrutiny of a re-read, particularly books I was fond of in my much younger days and now re-read out of nostalgia. I think science fiction as a genre is like any other genre of writing. Some authors do it very well and their works cry out to be re-read. Others churn out the pot-boilers, and we see the books at a thousand garage sales.

Do you re-read science fiction? Is there any genre which cannot be re-read?


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Re-reading, another view

I read an article on re-reading books in the Globe and Mail last weekend with interest. Few people write about their long-term relationships with books. Immediate impressions, passing potshots, or rave reviews seem more the norm for book bloggers and book columnists. I started this blog last fall with a discussion of books I’ve re-read. My own preference for books that carry the weight of re-reading comes from reading and re-reading An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis. Lewis contends that any book can be read once, but to attract a reader back for a second look means the book asks something more than just consumption from the reader. It encourages good reading. Lewis suggested we judge books by what kind of reading they encourage.

Joe Queenan describes the books that he re-reads. Some, he finds, always give off an aura of greatness, and the impression he has of reading them does not change. They are always good, always savoured. Other books improve on re-reading as different aspects of their greatness are highlighted and as one gains life experience. Some books don’t survive re-readings. He suggests SciFi doesn’t survive re-reading, but he’s never tried. I beg to differ.

Queenan’s re-reading list is different than mine, but I’ve also found that returning to a book that blew me away earlier can be a disappointment (recent personal example: Starship Trooper by Robert Heinlein). On the other hand re-reading something I struggled to get through the first time, and finding that it is much better than I remember is a great pleasure (personal examples: Pride and Prejudice, and Cryptonomicon). Other times I’m just looking for a comfortable re-read, a pleasant visit with old friends in familiar places (personal example: most Maeve Binchy titles). Queenan doesn’t mention comfort as a reason to re-read books. I find that interesting.

Why do you re-read books? Or do you? Why not?

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Connections between books

I just finished The Retribution by Val McDermid. It is a mystery featuring Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, recurring characters in 7 of McDermid’s mystery books. This book followed up on an earlier Hill/Jordan mystery, The Wire in the Blood, the first McDermid book I ever read. It hooked me on this series, and on McDermid’s work more generally. I was amazed that she killed off a key character in Wire. Now in The Retribution the killer Hill, Jordan, et. al. caught in Wire escapes from prison and sets out to revenge himself on Hill, Jordan, and others he thinks have betrayed him. It is a bit of a wild ride. I quite enjoyed the ride. I might have to go back and re-read Wire in the Blood because it is good, and because it has been a while.

I wasn’t expecting the connection between Retribution and Wire, but was quite pleased by it. I like it when authors bring in characters or use settings from other books, even when they aren’t in the same “series.” Of course one expects the overlap in books in the same series (though the degree of overlap can vary widely even in a series), but it is nice when it happens in places that are not quite expected. The author has an imaginary world, and populates it with characters who show up in each other’s space from time to time. McDermid does this in some of her other books. Characters or situations make a drive-by or background appearance. John Grisham also did it in some of his earlier books — the FBI director was the same in Pelican Brief and The Firm. Those are the two I can think of off the top of my head. Do you know an author who re-uses background characters or situations in different books, not in the same series?

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10 Books I think should be on any Top 100

That “100 Novels Everyone Should Read” list got in my head a little bit. Not in a bad way — I’m not worried about my lack of numbers on the list — it got me thinking about the criteria for making such a list. The Telegraph list that I linked to the other day doesn’t give any reasons for the books on the list, or reasons for the existence of the list. That has lots of people around the blog-o-sphere scratching their heads. Search on 100 novels everyone should read and check out the posts!

Back to my thinking about the list. I decided that a book should be read by lots of people if it gets in my head and resonates in my imagination, if I remember it without difficulty long after I’ve finished it, and if it calls me back for a re-read now and again. With those criteria in mind, here is a list of 10 books that meet them, from my reading experience. After 1 and 2, these are in no particular order.

1. Possession by A.S. Byatt. Are you surprised? If so, read this. I think about this book a lot because I do research on 19th-century writers. The book is about academics who read and research 19th-century poets. It resonates. It is also well-written (won the Booker Prize), has loads of layers, and plays on the title word. Byatt is brilliant.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This book hits most top 100 lists. It is a well-told tale that withstands re-reading. It can be an acquired taste, but once the taste is acquired, it is an addiction.

3. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. What? by Who? I hear you saying. Seriously, this Stephenson book has been in my head since I first read it. It is a cyberpunk novel, the first one I read. Mind-blowing experience.

4. Tigana by Guy Gavrel Kay. I’ve talked about Tigana before I think — it is an historical fantasy that deals with memory and the loss of memory/history and so the loss of identity for a people. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I read it.

5. Runaway Jury by John Grisham. Really? A Grisham book? This one I liked because of the moral ambiguity in the characters, and the means-end conflict. The setting also spins around in my head, along with the way the characters hide and re-make themselves.

6. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. (No more titles with snow in them, promise.) The structure of the story and the poetry of language in this one blew me away.

7. Room by Emma Donoghue. How does this one not get in your head with the five-year-old narrator who has never been outside the room of the title?

8. Mystical Paths by Susan Howatch. Ok, all of Howatch’s Church of England books get in my head, but this one sticks out to me. All about spiritual gifts and their use and abuse, clearly a theological connection.

9. Children of Men by P.D. James. The mystery books are good, but this one is great. James portrays humanity on the brink of extinction very vividly. There are clear theological overtones in this book too.

10. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher. I hesitated over this one, but it meets the criteria. The theme given in the title echoes through the book in lots of ways. This one sticks in my head.

You are not me. What are your top ten books that meet the criteria listed? Remember the criteria are: the book resonates in your imagination, you remember the story long after you are done, you want to re-read the book. Top ten. Or five even. With all of us together, maybe we can collaborate on a new top 100 list!

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Examples of Atmosphere; or, A Sense of Place

Previously I suggested that it was a particular kind of atmosphere in some books that meant I classified them as a comfort read. Most books that I re-read have a strong sense of place. Pride and Prejudice is overshadowed by Pemberley, whose shades would be polluted by association with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. All the Harry Potter books centre on Hogwarts. But there’s more to it than just that. Somehow the place has to be properly suggested by the author. Here is an example of a scene that gives a sense of place:

“Respect the Pedestrian, say the street signs of Metro Manila. As soon as Randy saw those, he knew he was in trouble.

“For the first couple of weeks he spent in Manila, his work consisted of walking. He walked all over the city carrying a handheld GPS receiver, taking down latitudes and longitudes. He encrypted the data in his hotel room and e-mailed it to Avi. It became part of Epiphyte’s intellectual property. It became equity.

“Now, they had secured some actual office space. Randy walks to it doggedly. He knows that the first time he takes a taxi there, he’ll never walk again.

“RESPECT THE PEDESTRIAN, the signs say, but the drivers, the physical environment, local land use customs, and the very layout of the place conspire to treat the pedestrian with the contempt he so richly deserves. Randy would get more respect if he went to work on a pogo stick with a propellor beanie on his head. Every morning the bellhops ask him if he wants a taxi, and practically lose consciousness when he says no. Every morning the taxi drivers lined up in front of the hotel, leaning against their cars and smoking, shout ‘Taxi? Taxi?’ to him. When he turns them down, they say witty things to each other in Tagalog and roar with laughter.”

That description comes from Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. Randy walks to work — the whole of his walk gives a sense of place. It was hard to choose a particular passage from that book — one thing that Stephenson does well is give a sense of the variety of places there are on the planet. Characters in Cryptonomicon travel a lot, and Stephenson manages to capture well the sense of difference between places.

Do you have particular places that inspire your imagination and prompt you to return to books? Or is it an entire world (Narnia?) that draws you back? Or do you just think I’m a little bit crazy?

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Atmosphere in Comfort Reads?

I’ve been thinking about comfort re-reads since writing about them on Monday. I went looking for a quote from C.S. Lewis on the atmosphere of a book. I found what I was looking for, but cannot quote the whole essay. You should read “On Stories” which was first published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947) but can now most easily be found in the collection Of This and Other Worlds. I’ll quote a little from the essay, but understand that I’m writing from my own experience to make a particular point about re-reading, whereas Lewis’s essay tries to redeem popular “stories” or “romances” which is what he calls plot-driven books.

I re-read books for the particular atmosphere they contain. Lewis read stories for their particular atmosphere, not just the excitement of the plot, but for the particular kind of excitement in each book. One of his examples compares the book King Solomon’s Mines with the movie version. This is what he says:

“I was one taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins — not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went — only one concerns us here. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers [you don’t? It’s ok, neither do I], the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. … No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story and if increase in dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death) — the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.”

For Lewis, the appeal of the scene in the book is a particular atmosphere, not just the danger of the situation. Later in the essay he says he doesn’t like The Three Musketeers because “the total lack of atmosphere repels me.” When one re-reads, of course, the excitement or suspense or surprise are gone, but the atmosphere remains. Lewis again: “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.”

When I’m looking for a particular kind of atmosphere, I go back to old favourites. I’m also always looking for new favourites, though, places with atmosphere that I might want to revisit in the future.

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