I missed this last week! Since this week is a free topic, I decided to do it this time. There are a few others I’ve missed that I want to do in the future (like Top Ten Villains, which was in October). I will have to save those for later, next time there’s a free topic.
1. Haroun & the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie: Salman Rushdie’s classic children’s novel, in which the boy Haroun sets out to restore the poisoned source of the sea of stories. I read this right after finishing The Sandman series (by Neil Gaiman), in January of 2012. It is much more cheerful than The Sandman, but it has some similar themes.
Nothing comes from nothing, Thieflet; no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old–it is the new combinations that make them new.
2. Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley: One of my favorite contemporary fantasies, with one of my favorite opening paragraphs.
The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like sticky plaster-dust. (House-cleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (It didn’t have to be anything scary or unpleasant, especially in a cheerful household – magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself — but if you want a cup of tea, a cup of lavender-and-gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory.)
3. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke: An alternate history set in a magical version of 19th-century England (1806-1817). I have read the print version twice and listened to the audio once. The first time, I read it winter, and it is definitely a wintry kind of book.
And I hope that all my readers are acquainted with an old English Cathedral town or I fear the significance of Mr Norrell’s chusing that particular place will be lost upon them. They must understand that in an old Cathedral town the great old church is not one building among many; it is the building – different from all others in scale, beauty, and solemnity. Even in modern times when an old Cathedral town may have provided itself with all the elegant appurtenances of civic buildings, assembly and meeting rooms (and York was well-stocked with these) the Cathedral rises above them – a witness to the devotion of our forefathers. It is as if the town contains within itself something larger than itself. When going about ones business in the muddle of narrow streets one is sure to lose sight of the Cathedral, but then the town will open out and suddenly it is there, many times taller and many times larger than any other building, and one realizes that one has reached the heart of the town and that all streets and lanes have in some way led here, to a place of mysteries much deeper than any Mr Norrell knew of. Such were Mr Segundus’s thoughts as he entered the Close and stood before the great brooding blue shadow of the Cathedral’s west face.
4. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: LotR is not nearly as cozy as its detractors think it is, but it has its cozy moments. One of my favorites:
There were rockets like a flock of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scent just before their touched their upturned faces. There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of colored fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes.
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: One of the funniest books I’ve read.
For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.
6. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett: Another of the funniest books I’ve read. I might give it the edge over Hitchhiker’s Guide, because the characters are so memorable. Crowley is one of my all-time favorite characters.
Crowley had always known that he would be around when the world ended, because he was immortal and wouldn’t have any alternative. But he hoped it was a long way off. Because he rather liked people. It was major failing in a demon. Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse. Over the years Crowley had found it increasingly difficult to find anything demonic to do which showed up against the natural background of generalized nastiness. There had been times, over the past millennium, when he’d felt like sending a message back Below saying, Look we may as well give up right now, we might as well shut down Dis and Pandemonium and everywhere and move up here, there’s nothing we can do to them that they don’t do to themselves and they do things we’ve never even thought of, often involving electrodes. They’ve got what we lack. They’ve got imagination. And electricity, of course. One of them had written it, hadn’t he… “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.“
7. The Once & Future King by T.H. White: Like LotR, this has been one of my favorites for a long time. The quote below is from The Sword in the Stone, but I actually like the later books even better.
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.
8. Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien: Tolkien’s hilarious tale of a farmer who must save his village from a dragon. The story begins at Christmastime.
The dragon, it appeared, was exceptionally large and ferocious. He was doing terrible damage.
‘What about the King’s knights?’ people began to say.
Others had already asked the same question. Indeed, messengers were now reaching the King from the villages most affected by Chrysophylax, and they said to him as loudly and as often as they dared: ‘Lord, what of your knights?’
But the knights did nothing; their knowledge of the dragon was still quite unofficial. So the King brought the matter to their notice, fully and formally, asking for necessary action at their early convenience. He was greatly displeased when he found that their convenience would not be early at all, and was indeed daily postponed.
Yet the excuses of the knights were undoubtedly sound. First of all, the Royal Cook had already made the Dragon’s Tail for that Christmas, being a man who believed in getting things done in good time. It would not do at all to offend him by bringing in a real tail at the last minute. He was a very valuable servant.
9. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis — I am not sure if I would call this one of my favorite books (the modern-setting parts of the book don’t quite work for me), but it is a powerful story, and it is set at Christmas after all.
Doomsday Book is the first book in Connie Willis’s Oxford Time Travel series, which is about historians at a near-future version of Oxford University who use time travel as part of their research. It takes place in 1348-1349, during the Black Death.
“Are these the last days, the end of the world that God’s apostles have foretold?”
Yes, Kivrin thought. “No,” she said. “No. It’s only a bad time. A terrible time, but not everyone will die. And there will be wonderful times after this. The Renaissance and class reforms and music. Wonderful times. There will be new medicines, and people won’t have to die from this or smallpox or pneumonia. And everyone will have enough to eat, and their houses will be warm even in the winter.” She thought of Oxford, decorated for Christmas, the streets and shops lit. “There will be lights everywhere, and bells that you don’t have to ring.”
“…Most of it was terrible,” she said softly, “but there were some wonderful things.”
10. I couldn’t think of a tenth book at first, but maybe Orlando by Virginia Woolf, for its depiction of the Great Frost of 1608-1609.
The Great Frost was, historians tell us, the most severe that has ever visited these islands. Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground. At Norwich a young countrywoman started to cross the road in her usual robust health and was seen by the onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner. The mortality among sheep and cattle was enormous. Corpses froze and could not be drawn from the sheets. It was no uncommon sight to come upon a whole herd of swine frozen immovable upon the road. The fields were full of shepherds, ploughmen, teams of horses, and little bird-scaring boys all struck stark in the act of the moment, one with his hand to his nose, another with the bottle to his lips, a third with a stone raised to throw at the ravens who sat, as if stuffed, upon the hedge within a yard of him. The severity of the frost was so extraordinary that a kind of petrifaction sometimes ensued; and it was commonly supposed that the great increase of rocks in some parts of Derbyshire was due to no eruption, for there was none, but to the solidification of unfortunate wayfarers who had been turned literally to stone where they stood.