Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Citizen of the Land of Genre Fiction

I’ve been a citizen of the land of genre fiction lately, dipping into two marvelous historical novels, Robert Harris’s absorbing novel about Cicero, Lustrum, which is just as well-crafted as all the reviewers claim, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s lyrical 1963 novel about King Arthur, Sword at Sunset. Sutcliff is probably going to end up at the charity sale; Lustrum, on the other hand, belongs in my cherished Roman kitsch collection. It’s not that Harris’s very well-written and well-researched book is junk, but it belongs on the shelves with everything from Gore Vidal’s classic, Julian, to a truly ridiculous novel called Clodia (which I plan to read in the next dozen years or so).

But much as I admire genre fiction, I prefer historical romances such as Sigrid Undset’s The Master of Hestviken or Anya Seton’s Katherine. Am I saying I prefer women’s fiction? Perhaps. In the beginnings of these novels (novel sequences in Undset’s case), Undset’s and Seton’s heroines’ lives revolve around love, but that shortly changes as work takes them over, they realize love is another difficult relationship, and husbands are far from perfect. These are books that reflect women's experience - love sweeps us away and makes us starry-eyed as young women - but one grows up fast with responsibilities.

Harris’s and Sutcliff’s books, on the other hand, are “men’s” books. Cicero’s and Arthur’s lives both revolve around politics and civil war. Harris's novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero's secretary, an endearing, nervous character, who is loyal to Cicero, but longing to retire. Sutcliff's novel is told by Arthur, and we feel his dark moods and determination to conquer the invading Saxons, yet Sword at Sunset is primarily an action novel. Both are fascinating, but the emotions just aren’t there for me to glob onto - and I'm in one of those "glob" moods.

Anyway, I’ve moved on to another genre: when all else palls, turn to SF/fantasy. So last night I tried to read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids - republished by NYRB - and struck out. The Day of the Triffids is a classic, and the second book I blogged about at Frisbee. The Chrysalids, however, is really a children's book - not an all-ages book either. Very disappointing and I'm glad I got it at the library.

So I walked among my genre books. I’ve considered making this a reading-only-books-on-my-shelves year, but this is unrealistic in terms of my life as a one-woman supporter of the book industry (new and used). But, searching my shelves, I pounced on an omnibus of Patricia C. Wrede’s first three Lyra books, Shadows over Lyra. These novels are delightful, well-written, well-imagined, and the characters are charming and likable. Wrede also has an excellent sense of humor. I began reading The Harp of Imach Thyssel - a novel of the road adventures in Lyra of a minstrel, Emerick, and his rich sidekick, Flindaron, a duke’s son, who, bored by weeks with a trader's caravan, is playing truant disguised as a minstrel. Almost right away they stumble upon danger and dark magic, after a kind of fairy-tale night at an inn, where, strangely, they don't want the minstrels to sing. The novel is suspenseful - the kind of plot you disappear into. It's very good for one of these long, dark nights.

Yes, I'm already complaining about the autumn weather. Daylight savings time ends Sunday. Then you know I'll have all the lights on in my house all the time: it's too dark out there.

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