Monday, December 27, 2010

"...there are other worlds than these."

I was thinking on the T the other day -- while pondering my overdue fines at various libraries -- about what books I read when I don't feel very good. Lately, it's been stacks of nonfiction: I have about a half-dozen new -- or new-ish -- histories scattered about the place, ranging from Roy Porter's For the Greatest Benefit of Mankind (not a real winner; I recommend his Mindforg'd Manacles instead) to Lawrence James' Aristocrats to a new biography of Thomas De Quincey because I really am fascinated by how someone can take that much opium and still function, let alone write.

But I don't seem to be on much of a fiction kick -- my explanation for this is largely that the strangeness inside my head is fictional enough without adding any extra fiction'y goodness. I did have a couple of dark genre novels on the shelf for awhile but I just couldn't ever be bothered to pick them up. At the minute, I also have Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars which I'm hoping I have the energy to read at some point before it has to go back to the library -- or add to my aforementioned overdue fines.

Despite that, I do reread the same "old favorites" rather obsessively when I'm...well, lets just say "not feeling myself."

There's Max Frei's The Stranger. I would use the phrase "deeply weird" here, but I feel that would just mean I'd be using the phrase a lot in this post. The Stranger is Russian -- obviously, I read it in translation since my Russian just about comprehends "hello," "goodbye," "you're welcome," and the numbers from 1-10. According to the flap information, The Stranger is the first of a massively popular series called the "Labyrinths of Echo," Echo being the main city of the world Frei has created, in Russia; as far as I know, only this one has been translated -- by Overlook Press and sold so far; by a simple website check, I see the second volume of the "Labyrinths of Echo" series is going to be on sale next year (maybe). Yay!

If you liked the entire The Neverending Story -- and not just the first section that they made into the really popular movie -- then you'll probably like The Stranger. Premise: the main character, Max, is an insomniac in this world. He lives in modern-day -- late '90s -- Russia and can more or less function, but he's always been more interested in the world he has established in his vivid, nay, lucid dreams. He has his favorite city, his favorite restaurants, and even his favorite cafe, where there is another man he chats with frequently -- who suddenly offers him a job if he is willing to switch worlds and come work in the city of Echo.

Max is no fool, so off to the new job he goes!

The novel works as a book-length story, but you can also consider it a series of loosely connected, continually-escalating-in-weirdness novellas. The city of Echo is a strange, wonderful place: magic is an everyday, but is strictly controlled and graded in degrees of white and black magic, some more difficult and verboten than others. Food is a continual obsession; the meals Max and his coworkers consume will make you dribble and wish for a cookbook. Instead of a bed, residents of Echo sleep on a vast, soft floor with immensely comfortable sounding pillows and blankets. And best of all? Cats are about knee-high, long-furred, and intensely cuddly.

So, yes, the book is escapist literature, absolutely, but it's also very involving, very detailed, and absorbing to read. The stories escalate in complexity and difficulty: the first is a simple murder and spends a lot of time establishing the city of Echo, Max's role in it, and the roles of his various friends and coworkers. The last story is about sex and gender fluidity, world-building, willpower, and imagination. If you're not happy with the life you have and the world you're in -- what do you do? What is Echo, really? Is it a real world? Is there a real world? Fun times, yes? Yes. And somehow immensely comforting to read. And reread.

Next on the list, I would say, is Walter Moers' City of Dreaming Books. Again, in translation (from German, this time); and, again, from the Overlook Press. (I really love the Overlook Press: they have authors I can't find anywhere else; their books are lovely; and they stand up to a lot of use!)

I've read, I think, everything that Moers has written that has been translated at this point -- so if you follow my recommendation and read this, don't blame me when he takes over your reading list for the next few months or so. (I also really recommend The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear.)

Books is written by a Lindworm (read the book) named Dancelot Wordwright who is given a task by his authorial godfather (read the book) to track down the author of a mysterious manuscript in Bookholm (read the book).

There is an entire city of used bookstores. Are you fucking kidding me?! What is not to love about this book! It is one long fantastic word joke. Okay, no, not really, that would be kind of annoying but there is a ton of really fantastic wordplay; I would urge you to pay very close attention to any names -- authors, titles, places -- that come your way. And you might want to have some scratch paper or Scrabble tiles handy.

Books is is warm and cozy and it is just like having warm cocoa and graham crackers. But in book form.

It's a lovely absorbing journey story -- one of my favorite forms of tale-telling -- with a surprisingly heart-catching ending... at least, if you get as involved in the story as I do and you have a thing for monsters-that-aren't-really. There's lots of great food and drink, some wonderful book titles, and Wordwright is a really involving narrator, despite being rather pretentious and somewhat high on himself. He manages to be charming in much the same way that you never quite want to haul off and nail Bertie Wooster with a brick.

And there are these little guys:

Bookling by Veli found on DeviantART.

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