Browsing articles from "December, 2010"
Dec 8, 2010


In honor of this morning’s #whyIread hashtag, I wanted to share a bit of Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s acceptance speech, “In Praise of Reading and Fiction“. It was excerpted in this morning’s Shelf Awareness, and it’s one of the best arguments for the importance of literature that I’ve ever read. I don’t agree with every point he makes, but I love the idea that literature can be the grain of irritation that brings freedom from tyranny. My favorite bits are in bold:

I learned to read at the age of five, in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. Almost seventy years later I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space and allowing me to travel with Captain Nemo twenty thousand leagues under the sea, fight with d’Artagnan, Athos, Portos, and Aramis against the intrigues threatening the Queen in the days of the secretive Richelieu, or stumble through the sewers of Paris, transformed into Jean Valjean carrying Marius’s inert body on my back.

Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.


Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.


From the cave to the skyscraper, from the club to weapons of mass destruction, from the tautological life of the tribe to the era of globalization, the fictions of literature have multiplied human experiences, preventing us from succumbing to lethargy, self-absorption, resignation. Nothing has sown so much disquiet, so disturbed our imagination and our desires as the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions real life will never give us. The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality.

Dec 2, 2010

Review: Neverwhere

Neverwhere by Neil GaimanI don’t usually read genre fiction, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I can’t tell you how horrified I was when I realized this meant I’d have leave the lit/fic section at Borders. I never browse those middle shelves. I approached them slowly, only after giving the fic/lit section a quick go-over. That way, the shelf-monitors would know that I really do refined taste. Terrifing, those genre shelves were. What if someone thought I was looking for a cowboy romance?

Fortunately, the shelf-monitors are (probably) imaginary. Besides, if they came over to judge me, I’d just explain to them that I’m trying to be less of a book snob, and trying to work some good stories into my reading after a long spate of dour Southern fiction. I’m sure they’d understand.

Less fortunately, Neverwhere was about enough to scare me back to Flannery.

Richard Mehew is a 20-something with a boring job in London. He’s relatively satisfied with his life, but has a niggling feeling that he could be more fulfilled. One day, he sees an injured girl in an alley. Richard helps the girl, and in doing so is cast into her life of terror and adventure in underground London.

The girl is the last surviving daughter of a ruling family. She has magical powers. (She can open doors. Locked ones. As far as magical powers goes, this doesn’t seem very spectacular. In fact, it reminds me of The Fluppy Dogs. I don’t think that’s what Gaiman was going for.)

Richard and Door (That’s the girl’s name. Door. Sensible.) travel through London Below to avenge her parents and right the wrongs of the world. They meet and lose traveling companions, and after a few characters disappear, you get the feeling that everyone’s expendable. When Richard and Door (spoiler alert) start to fall for each other, I could think was, uh, weird. Where’d that chemistry come from? I got the impression that Door’s a teenager, and Richard’s in his late twenties. Icky.

First, if I were writing a book about a magical world beneath London, it would be called Under London. Way rolly-off-the-toungeier than London Below. Second, have you seen my basement? It’s terrifying. It’s dark and old and you can hear my neighbors walking around and you get the distinct feeling that you’re about to be whisked off to Suburbs Below, and it’s not going to be pretty.

This book prevents me from doing my laundry.

Yes, it’s exciting enough to keep my clothes dirty, but in a very strange way. All of action happens externally. It feels more like you’re watching a movie than reading a book. All of the scenes seem like they were written to be pretty set pieces. If J.K. Rowling wrote about Herrod’s being turned into a magical gypsy bazaar, you’d feel like you were there. The way Gaiman writes it, it feels like you’re watching the Christopher Columbus-directed HP. There was no character development, just whoopsie daisy, average guy becomes hero, look at that neato building.

All I could think through out the whole book was: This would be a great movie. A really fun 80s puppet masterpiece. Davie Bowie could be in it. He could play…we’d write him into it.

I felt much better I did some digging and found out that this book was, in fact, based on a movie. Yep. It’s a novelization of a BBC miniseries. At least my instincts are right-on.

I don’t think this will be my last Gaiman, though. I considered complaining to him on Twitter. I guess I should have known better, since I took films based on his books as recommendations. I feel a little tricked, though. I don’t think this book stands on it’s own without the miniseries. I’d like to give Gaiman another chance, and I might check out the BBC version. I always thought this story would make a great movie.

Read if:

  • You’re not afraid of your laundry.
  • You loved The Labyrinth or The Tenth Kingdom, and you always wished there was a novelization.
  • You’re having trouble making the difficult transition from television to the printed word.

How do you feel about novelizations? Have you ever been tricked into one? Do you have any Neil Gaiman recommendations?