November is not my favourite month. It’s cold and dark and not yet Christmas. In my part of the world, which is the North of England, the days get shorter rapidly, you very quickly find yourself going to work in the morning in the dark and coming home in the dark. It’s wet and cold, we just had Storm Arwen, our metro was completely shut for two and a half days which meant we had to cycle to church on ice last Sunday, my fingertips were so frozen and numb I literally thought of War and Peace and the march in the snow. I know this is nothing for many of you who live in colder countries, but my fingers burnt when I defrosted them! All these rants is just to say, I don’t like November, so I prepared myself to cope, with fantasy.
I am also carrying on with my ‘Reading Oxford’ project, this is the second year, which means I need to read books from before the Victorian era. And as always, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction if possible. So those are the keywords I had in mind when making my reading list for November. So here are all the books I read in November. We’ll look through them from the newest to the oldest in terms of when it was written and published.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Piranesi is a fantasy novel that came out this year and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I thought the contestants on the shortlist were really strong this year. I read four out of the six titles on the shortlist. The judges must have had a wonderful headache to make the decision.
Piranesi is the name of the main character. He lives in this vast space that is made up of halls, staircases and hundreds and hundreds of marble statues. The book is a collection of his diary entries. In the first entry, he went to observe the tide.
The story begins like this:
“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule. Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls. When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.”
And the entry talks about how he climbed onto a statue named “a Woman carrying a Beehive” and watched the tides coming in from “Far Eastern Halls”, “Western Halls” and “Northern Halls”. However he soon realised the tides were much higher and stronger than he expected and it completely overwhelmed him. He wrote “I thought that I was going to die; or else that I would be swept away to Unknown Halls, far from the rush and thrum of Familiar Tides.” But the tides died down and he survived. The entry ends with “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
There are so many questions immediately popping into my head. When entering into a new story, especially a fantasy, I collect information as I go and try to get a bearing in this new world. But this first chapter was so disorientating I felt like drowning with Piranesi in the tides.
- What is this place?
- Why is the date calculated like this?
- Why is there tide and sea in the building?
- How long has he been here?
- What is he doing here?
The author drops hints and clues quietly, and before you realise, it builds up to a tsunami of a climax, all you can do is hold on for dear life.
The author is a magician with words. One magic trick she does is to use capital letters for many words you usually wouldn’t capitalise, for example, notice the capital letter, “the Moon rose”; “[The Tide] had no colour to speak of and its Waters were no more than ankle deep. It spread a grey mirror across the Pavement, the surface of which was marbled with streaks of milky Foam”.
These capital letters make the space feel larger, emptier and more in the foreground. These are not some vague objects in the background, just the setting, these are the focal points, the main characters of the story. There are the halls, statues, and the sea, and there’s Piranesi.
And right from the first entry, you sense the loneliness of Piranesi, who doesn’t seem to feel lonely and is quite at peace with himself. A small lone figure in this vast space, with silent statues and the sound of the sea. He explores the Halls, admires its Beauty and worships the House as if it’s alive. Nothing harms him and he seems to have no fear of danger or death.
Not sure if this is an appropriate comparison, this makes me think of Adam in Genesis chapter two, when Adam was created first and lived in the garden of Eden on his own. He would have lived in an infinitely beautiful, bountiful and safe place, he would have been at peace with himself because he was at peace with God. Did God see Adam walking under vast trees humming to himself and sitting silently on a rock watching the river flow? And did these sights of Adam cause God to say, “It is not good that the man should be alone”?
Miyazaki World by Susan Napier
Miyazaki World is a biography of the Japanese animation filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve been watching Miyazaki’s animation since I was little. In some ways, his works are even more part of my childhood than Harry Potter. I thought it would be nice to be reminded of all the films I loved in a gloomy month.
The book was published in 2018 and it took the author eight years to complete. As the author puts it, “the book is an examination of why and how Hayao Miyazaki came to be the unprecedented animator: of the world he has created and of the worlds that created him.”
The first two chapters look at his childhood and the effect of the Second World War on his childhood as well as some of his earlier works. Then each of his major works is given its own chapter. The author looks at many themes in a lot of detail and depth.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
When I did the planning, I thought OK for a month of fantasy reading, this would be a good time to read my first Neil Gaiman. And among all his books, I randomly picked this one which was published in 2013.
It’s about a 7-year-old boy who loves reading stories and has no friends. He describes himself like this, “I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else”.
One day a monster was let loose into his world and things went from bad to worse. But he made a real friend for the first time, Lettie Hempstock who lived at the end of the lane and called a duckpond the ocean.
It was a really intense book, I felt desperate, scared and helpless even more than the boy himself because I thought him really brave!
Same as Piranesi, the story made me feel really lonely and reminded me of the lonely feeling of childhood. At the very beginning of the book, there is a quote from someone I don’t really know, he said “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” I guess the terrible things could be something completely different for this person, or for Neil Gaiman or for me, but I get the lonely feeling. I couldn’t let the adults know, and keeping that knowledge on my own made me feel sad and isolated.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Howl’s Moving Castle was published in 1986. This is the type of story that I had in mind when I tried to combat gloomy November with cosy stories. But I think this one ended up the only cosy one on the list.
It’s about a young woman called Sophie who got turned into an old woman by a witch and ended up living in a moving castle with Calcifer the fire demon, Michael the apprentice and Howl the wizard.
The main theme is Sophie’s journey of self-discovery – she slowly discovered her magic power, her affection for Howl, and grew to be sure and confident of herself. I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t a show-down between the witch and Sophie at the end.
I watched Miyazaki’s animation first and it’s really interesting now I can look at them side by side. The film I think is generally very faithful to the spirit of the book. Diana Wynne Jones said when she met up with Miyazaki, presumably, to talk about the animation, she found that Miyazaki understood her books “in a way that no one else has ever done”.
The biggest difference is where the fourth door, the door with the black knob leads to, and the war scenes in the film. Even before I read the book I was pretty certain the flying machines and war scenes were Miyazaki’s creation so I was very curious where the fourth door goes to in the book, and I was not disappointed – I find it weirdly funny, having family living in that part of the world!
Diana Wynne Jones commented on Miyazaki’s obsession on the flying machines, she said “Miyazaki and I were both children in World War II and we seem to have gone opposite ways in our reactions to it. I tend to leave the actual war out (we all know how horrible wars are), whereas Miyazaki (who feels just the same) has his cake and eats it…”
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula le Guin
I had the same thought process choosing this one as I did Neil Gaiman. For a whole month of fantasy, surely I should read my first book by Ursula Le Guin. This is the first in the Earthsea Cycle, published in 1968. I heard so much about it and it’s so popular, I really want to love it but I do not like it!
It has this epic poem quality to it. The atmosphere for the whole book is very solemn and grave. The main character Sparrowhawk showed powerful gift in magic when he was little. He was then sent to a wizard school and was forced to go on a quest to overcome a dark force. I heard it compared to Harry Potter a lot. There are some similarities, for example, the connection between Sparrowhawk and this dark force. But otherwise they’re very different.
I would always be happy to live in Hogwarts, but I have not any wish to live in the world of Earthsea alongside Sparrowhawk. He meets hostility and danger everywhere. He always sails in stormy weather or across the hopeless vastness of the sea. There’s very little friendship until the last 10% of the book, very little source of comfort or courage.
Sparrowhawk carries on his quest by sheer will power and I don’t even see the reason for it – there’s no one he loves or cares for in the world, why bother protecting it? Like earlier on he tames the dragons purely because it’s his duty to do so. It’s very bleak, grey, cold and lonely. The final climax is short and disappointing – left me thinking, oh is that it.
Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
These were published in 1865 and 1872. I’m not sure if they can be categorised as fantasy strictly speaking but I did. If you know the Alice stories only from watching the recent film adaptations like I did, you’ll be very surprised about the book themselves, especially the second film, there’s very little in common.
What comes through most from reading the two stories is that, these read like how a child sees and comprehends the world. This does not read like an adult writing a story for children, especially surprising given this is Victorian, it’s more like a child writing a story. If a child could write a long story down, it would have read something like this.
There are a lot of studies on the author and these two books. I read the introduction in this edition, Oxford World’s Classics from 2009, it’s helpful in many ways, for example, Wonderland “is not a land of wonders, but rather a land where one wonders,” but something in there I really wish I never know.
We’ve been travelling back in time and we have now left the familiar water of the Victorian era and will go further back in history.
The last three books are from my Reading Oxford year-two curriculum. I was really glad to find titles that were on the curriculum, and at the same time, came under the fantasy category.
The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World was written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess, the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish in 1666. We’re in the 17th century!
Her writings are listed in the Norton Anthology. I also found her name in Feminism: A Very Short Introduction, described as “an intellectually astute writer who spoke out eloquently against the hostility directed at any woman regarded as outspoken or ambitious.”
The Blazing World is described by the Norton Anthology as “part romance, part utopia and part science fiction”. It’s about a young woman enters another universe by accident, the emperor of this universe immediately marries her and gives her the absolute power to rule the place.
The author’s imagination of the people groups is fabulous, “some appeared of an azure, some of a deep purple, some of a grass-green, some of a scarlet, some of an orange-colour”, “some were bear-men, some worm-men, some fish- or mer-men, some bird-men, some fly-men, some ant-men, some geese-men, some spider-men…”
She then spends pages after pages asking the inhabitants of the world about their scientific experiments, she asks them what is the sun, what is the moon, what is the air, what is snow and ice, what is thunder and lightning – it gives some idea of 17th-century science but I admit this is not the fun part.
The empress then wants a scribe, she wants Aristotle, Plato or Epicurus, but is told “those famous men were very learned, subtle, and ingenious writers, they were so wedded to their own opinions, that they would never have the patience to be scribes.” So the empress says how about one of those modern writers then? Apparently they are “so self-conceited, that they would scorn to be scribes to a woman… but there’s a lady, the Duchess of Newcastle…” So the empress invites Margaret Cavendish, the author herself, to be her scribe.
What I like best is in the preface, she writes “though I cannot be Henry the Fifth or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First; and although I have neither power, time nor occasion to conquer the world as Alexander and Caesar did; yet rather than not to be mistress of one, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made a world of my own.”
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play, performed around 1611, and it was one of his comedies. I only know Shakespeare’s plays are categorised as comedy, tragedy and history, I was delighted to find a fantasy among his work for this month.
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
Beowulf is the oldest of the great long poems written in English from the first half of the eighth century. I read the translation by Seamus Heaney. It’s about a great warrior called Beowulf who killed monsters and fought a dragon heroically so people can live in peace.
I was most surprised by its explicit references to the Bible and God. For example, Grendel the monster was a descendent from Cain, who became an outcast because he killed his brother Abel.
I guess I was surprised because first this was very old, the story was written down long time ago and could have come from even earlier. But the way God was talked about is very similar to how Christians describe God today. For example, “the Almighty Judge” “the Lord God” “Head of the Heavens and High King of the World”, “Blessed is he who after death can approach the Lord and find friendship in the Father’s embrace”.
The second reason I was surprised was because this was all about monsters and dragons. I don’t usually read about mythical creatures and God of the Bible in one paragraph. I got used to it by the end, it just took some adjustment.
For December, I’m going to pick some Christmas-themed classics, carry on with titles on my ‘Reading Oxford’ year-two curriculum and re-read some of the titles I rushed through earlier on this year.
Happy reading everyone and if I don’t see you before that – Merry Christmas and happy New Year! Hope you’ll able to see all the friends and family you wish to see!