Thursday, January 22, 2015

Throwback Thursday: 15 years old, Among Others

I started off the year 2015 with my nose in a book. Yup, that's what I was doing at 12:01 January 1st, and most of the rest of January 1st, too, gobbling up a wonderful book, Among Others by Jo Walton (2012 winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards). The main character in Among Others was 15 and attended an English boarding school that was decidedly NOT a Hogwarts kind of school: the most unmagical of schools, in fact... but Mori brought her magic with her. This book is a great example of the fascinating magical realism genre. It's also a got a main character with a disability, (#weNeedDiverseBooks) and that disability and the cane it required played a fascinating part in the story.

Despite attending a regular public American high school, not an English boarding school, and not needing a cane to walk, I still really identified with Mori... more than most mc's in young adult books. Here's why....

I had a split personality in high school (I still do, somewhat). Personality #1: a girl who painted her nails a new color (almost) every day; spent (many) afternoons browsing through clothing stores at the mall, or leafing through L.L. Bean and J. Crew clothing catalogs; highlighted her hair with peroxide;  and ran on the track and cross country teams and got really competitive about it.
15 year old me with bleached hair
Personality #2: a girl who, when she skipped classes or lunch, could be found in the school library reading or searching for new books to read. And who when wasn't reading, was often sketching characters in the margins of her history notes, or staring off into space daydreaming about the fantasy and science fiction worlds she'd just read. Ages 13 through 15 was when I devoured books like Dune, the Earthsea books and the Lord of the Rings (and many others, but those were the ones that stuck with me most memorably) and these  books, especially Lord of the Rings, play their own fascinating role in Mori's story.

So freaking cool how the books play a role, almost become characters themselves, in this story!

Among Others
Since Mori's personality wasn't split like mine (and she was partially crippled, having to walk with a cane, so she couldn't get involved in as much as I could)... she devoured books at a stunning pace, especially after discovering interlibrary loans:
“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.”   
“Libraries really are wonderful. They're better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”  
“I'll belong to libraries wherever I go. Maybe eventually I'll belong to libraries on other planets.” 
Among Others is a book about family, friends, fairies, boarding school, and books. The fairies fit in that sequence in a very straight-forward way; Mori has grown up always seeing (and sometimes in even playing with) fairies in the valleys and abandoned coal works of her native Wales. This is the first story I've read set, at least in part, in Wales. What a fascinating country! I googled maps and sometimes Welsh history while I was reading.

Mori refuses to live with her mad witch mother any more. Yes, her mother really is a witch, and a pretty evil one, too, by Mori's account - her mother is at least partly responsible for her daughter's death, Mori's twin. Mori lives in a children's home for a while until her father is located. Then her father sends her to an all girl boarding school in England, where she is far removed from the fairies and magic she grew up with, and can't relate to anyone at the school (one of the references to the title... living "among others" - though the others might refer to the fairies, too).

In her loneliness, Mori finds solace in books, but longs to find a few like minded souls (a "karass" - a reference to a group of like minded souls from Kurt Vonnegut's book, Cat's Cradle). Eventually she even tries working a magic spell to help her find a karass - and succeeds - but her use of magic has the unwanted effect of attracting her mother's attention.

The karass that Mori finds wasn't quite what one might expect - but it was perfect! - here's a hint: one of the kindred spirits in her karass makes this comment:
“Bibliotropic," Hugh said. "Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop.” 
Another member of her karass is Wim (a British nickname for William - LOVE IT!!!)  Wim is judged by others and is surprised that Mori doesn't judge him... it's clear her open-mindedness is related to all the literature she's drenched in. She also has a plethora of insightful comments and observations about life, often framed as questions, which I really liked.
Does it mean that it doesn't matter if it's magic or not, anything you do has power and consequences and affects other people?”
On waiting for God’s plan to unfold:
If I were omnipotent  and  omniscient  I  think  I  could  have  come up  with a better [plan]. Lightning bolts never go out of fashion.
A word on the fairies: they appear on a spectrum from little ugly gnome-like things to tall, beautiful LOTR elvish creatures. They don't play a large role, but they show up just often enough to add a fascinating dimension to the story, and a climax that ties in gloriously with the very beginning of the story.

And a word on the magic, which was unique and subtle and amusing:
At home I walked through a haze of belongings that knew, at least vaguely, who they belonged to. Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself....My mother’s shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us. There was a potato knife in the kitchen that Gramma couldn’t use. It was an ordinary enough brown-handled thing, but she’d cut herself with it once, and ever after it wanted more of her blood. If I rummaged through the kitchen drawer, I could feel it brooding. After she died, that faded. Then there were the coffee spoons, rarely used, tiny, a wedding present. They were made of silver, and they knew themselves superior to everything else and special. None of these things did anything. The coffee spoons didn’t stir the coffee without being held or anything. They didn’t have conversations with the sugar tongs about who was the most cherished. I suppose what they really did was physiological. They confirmed the past, they connected everything, they were threads in a tapestry.
(Also loved the reference to how the Christmas ornaments were full of magic, but Mori wasn't sure if the three aunties realized it, but she was fairly sure they knew about the magic in their earrings, and that getting Mori to pierce her ears and wear their earrings would... oops, that's a spoiler, sort of).

In addition to friends and fairies and a very subtle magic, this book is also about family: Mori getting to know her newly discovered father and grandfather (Sam!) and three new "aunties" (who are love-to-hate characters almost picked out of some yet-as-undiscovered Jane Austen book),

There's also her beloved Welsh Grampar (her other grandfather) and Auntie Teg... and memories of her twin sister and the epic battle they fought against their witch mother to keep her from using her magic to control the fairies.

All the characters in this story felt like real people (they probably were real people) and so vivid that I remember all their names very distinctly, even 3 weeks after finishing the story. Most of the lovable characters are book worms (but not all of them, like Auntie Teg and her fairy-seeing cat). I was especially delighted that the librarians become Mori's friends.

Friends, family, fairies... I still need to mention the boarding school and, I'm not yet done mentioning the books. I sincerely hope that English boarding schools these days put doors in bathroom and shower stalls; in the 1970's  doors and privacy were not permitted. Also, who knew that boarding schools were so loud?? No wonder why Mori spent most of her time in the library. I had a sudden terrible thought while reading this story: the fact that these kids had to suffer through high school cafeterias not just for lunch but for breakfast and dinner, too. Oh the poor dear souls!

However, the real life boarding school did have one similarity to Hogwarts: a magical train. Well, sort of magical:
I love the train. Sitting here I feel connected to the last time I sat here, and the train to London too. It is in-between, suspended; and in rapid motion towards and away from, it is also poised between. There's a magic in that, not a magic you can work, a magic that's just there, giving a little colour and exhilaration to everything.
And while I'm at it, I simply must mention the mountains, and Mori's love of maps:
I love the mountains. I love the kind of horizon they make, even in winter. When we went down again, towards Merthyr first and then over the shoulder of the mountain to Aberdare, where Aun­tie Teg walked, once, when she was still in school, it felt like nestling back down in a big quilt. 
I bought a map of Europe, with Germany huge and no Czechoslovakia. I think it must be from the war, or right before...I couldn't resist it…I don't know what I'm going to do with it. But maps are brill.
But oh the books in this story, oh the books! Truly this story was written as an ode to books and bookworms. I especially loved the blend of reality, fantasy and science fiction:
I wonder if there will be fairies in space? It's a more possible thought in Clarke's universe than Heinlein's somehow, even though Clarke's en­gineering seems just as substantial. I wonder if it's because he's British? Never mind space, do they even have fairies in America?
(Note to self: revisit a couple Arthur C. Clarke books) (and try some Delany books. And Zelazny).

Every reference to the Lord of the Rings just made my heart sing, and the ending is where books and magic intersected in a breathtaking and stand-up-and-cheer way. A few of my favorite LOTR references:
I am reading The Lord of the Rings. I suddenly wanted to. I almost know it by heart, but I can still sink right into it. I know no other book that is so much like going on a journey. When I put it down to this, I feel as if I am also waiting with Pippin for the echoes of that stone down the well.
The thing about Tolkien, about The Lord of the Rings, is that it's perfect. It's this whole world, this whole process of immersion, this journey. It's not, I'm pretty sure, actually true, but that makes it more amazing, that someone could make it all up. Reading it changes everything. 
Oaks hang onto their leaves all winter, like mallorns, so it's easy to find them. 
Finished  LOTR, with the usual sad pang of reaching  the end and there being no more of it.
LOTR certainly changed my world, though it's hard to say exactly how. It made my life deeper, somehow... and also broader.

I'd love to hear in the comments if there was a book from your early teen days that changed a little bit of your world too, or the way you saw the world...

6 comments:

  1. Hadn't heard of this and I really enjoy magical realism stories. Also love stories set in Wales, England, Ireland, and Scotland. Thanks for letting us know about it. And glad you started out the New Year reading. Me too.

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  2. A book that changed everything for me: Rosalind Laker's "Smuggler's Bride." I was reading it in the 6th grade (so maybe technically not a teen yet!) one afternoon after school. A thought hit me. "What if I tried to write a book?" And that, folks, was the beginning of my life as a writer. I've never stopped writing since that day. I was a voracious reader of historical fiction even before I decided to write it, and I think that's probably true of many writers. We write what we like to read. :)

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  3. Wow, Margo. Love this pat. It's obvious you it a ton of thought into it. I also enjoyed hearing about the younger you and how you compared it to the MC in Amoung Others. Guess I'll be picking up this book soon...

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  4. I would read this alone for it being set in Wales about a character who loves books--and it has fairies! I do think those in the U.K. do fairies better than we do.
    I discovered Ray Bradbury in my early teens. I can't name a particular book, because I devoured them all and most of his short stories too--but his way of turning the ordinary on its head or using the extraordinary to illuminate our lives has always inspired me.

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  5. Thanks for the book recommendation, Margo. There were a number of books I read as a teen that moved me. I don't think I can name just one.



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  6. This sounds absolutely fascinating, Margo! LOTR has my heart, as you know, so any book where the main character makes references to it is right up my alley! I can't believe I've never heard of this one. Adding to my list! Magical realism is a genre that I've been very interested in lately. Have you read AVA LAVENDER? It's a beautifully written magical realism and made me cry several times.

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