Occasionally when someone comes into the South Branch looking for something different to read, I have to catch myself from evangelizing some of my favorite books, remembering that not everyone has the same taste in books as I do and that offering advice to readers means focusing on their preferences instead of my own. All that goes out the window, however, when someone (patron, friend, random stranger) asks me what I’ve ready lately, in which case I start to gush about some of the books that have just been brimming up inside me waiting for this exact question to spill forth. I often find myself recommending these books just by talking about them so excitedly, but when I do, I’ve noticed that some of my suggestions come with caveats. A common one is some version of “don’t let the magic scare you off; it’s so [insert enthusiastic adjective here], you won’t even notice.”
I’ve often wondered why I feel the need to hedge such a genuine offering. I stand behind every exuberant recommendation I’ve given (either in person or here on the blog), recognizing that while it may not be everyone’s taste, my excitement for the book is honest and heartfelt. So why should I add a trigger warning for a caveat that might not have been an issue in the first place? I think part of it stems from books with magic in them being classified as “genre” reading. Similar to romance novels (which we’ve learned from the Library’s regular blogger often garner the misnomer of “trashy”), books with “magic” or supernatural element or different worlds in them, commonly referred to as fantasy books, are often looked down upon as not being “literary,” which, in book-snob terms usually means not good enough for people who take their books seriously.
Well, I say hogwash! I’ve already expounded upon the right to read whatever you enjoy, and I don’t think we should discount books just because authors are brave enough to dream up worlds beyond our own. However, I also don’t think that just because an author has dared to think outside our regular laws of physics, logic, or anything else that might ground us in so-called “reality” automatically discounts them from being a talented storyteller. Plenty of “fantasy” or other types of genre writers take pride in their craft and work to hone their skills. Many of these authors have profound things to say about our world, about life and even about writing. They just choose to make the hard topics more palatable by removing them a degree or two (or five) from our version of reality.
It’s generally accepted that kids’ books can be magical or fantastic. The venerable Dr. Seuss often made up plenty of worlds (Whoville, the Hoober-Bloob Highway, or whatever world the Sneetches lived in) and used them to introduce kids to topics like war, environmental destruction and stewardship, and the commercialization of Christmas. It seems that because these books and specials were meant for kids, it’s OK that Geisel’s imagination ran wild and so they can be considered classics. Yet, when adult books tackle similar topics through similar means, it somehow becomes less OK and more “mainstream.” Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being mainstream or writing (and reading) books that have a simple, enjoyable plot. Where my bone of contention lies, is when books are dismissed as not having depth simply because they aren’t realistic enough, as though magic somehow detracts from a wonderful story with powerful themes.
So in the spirit of enthusiastic recommendations and embracing both magic AND a good story, here are some books that will take you away and still leave you pondering:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This blog’s much-adored author deserves yet another mention because his books are precisely the blend of magic and depth that I’m talking about today. His most recent novel for adults deals with families, childhood, memories and overcoming fear. The characters are infinitely entertaining, the dialogue is charming and quick-paced and the inner workings of the main character are simultaneously child-like and relatable on an adult level. If previous mentions of Gaiman’s works haven’t enticed you before, this may be a good place to begin his oeuvre.
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
I mentioned this book a mere two weeks ago as an ideal Halloween read, but this recommendation goes beyond seasonal appeal. The protagonists in this story are transported into a world of history and exploration, but they also learn about friendship, sacrifice and the impetuousness of youth. While this books isn’t as heavy as Bradbury’s more famous Fahrenheit 451, it still deals with themes that belie a simple story.
Going Postal by Terry Pratchett
The late, great Terry Pratchett was a virtuoso satirist and like so many satirists, he took a view of our world and spun it with a masterful combination of acerbic wit, keen observation and downright silliness. In this book, he examines bureaucracy, the question of whether a person has the ability to fundamentally change himself and how a simple idea can change the world. These themes, however, tend to be overlooked as they’re explored in a made-up world where the planet is shaped like a disc that is carried around the universe on the backs of four elephants which are, in turn carried on the back of a giant turtle. Pratchett insisted that any of his Discworld books can be read in any order, so even though this isn’t the first, it’s a good place to start as it introduces several recurring characters and has a delightful mini-series adaptation that can help you visualize Pratchett’s amazing creations.
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
It’s difficult to ignore the depth of a book that was so incendiary it incurred a fatwa on the author and many involved in the book’s publishing. While the political ramifications of the book often overshadow the actual text, make no mistake that this is a beautiful work that deals with so much more than faith. When the library’s Classics group discussed it earlier this year, several members found passages life-changing. Many might not recognize how truly funny sections of this book can be while Rushdie deals with the ideas, concerns and challenges of emigration, being different and being an outsider with pin-point accuracy.
After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Maguire is a master of re-imagining fairy tales and finding hidden depths in worlds that have already been created. In his latest work, he brings us into Wonderland on the heels of Alice’s childhood friend Ada and behind the looking-glass through the eyes of Alice’s sister Lydia. In doing so, he discusses themes of discovering one’s independent spirit, plumbing the depths of womanhood and even tackling evolution and imagination. Don’t let the short length of the book or the child’s story base fool you, Maguire packs a big punch into a brief text.
Sometimes in order to help us understand our own world or our inner lives, we need to gain context in the guise of another world. So this weekend, dear readers, don’t let magic scare you away from a good story. You never know what you might be able to uncover!