Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is the literary equivalent of going to the gym

It’s easy to make excuses not to do it, you wonder halfway through why you’re doing this to yourself, but then you feel great for the rest of the day

I did something I haven’t done in a while. I read an extreme academic heavyweight, To the Lighthouse. I bought it eleven years ago for 2€30 in a used bookshop in Angers, France, and it’s been following me, unread, from apartment to apartment, through degree after degree, through breaking up, getting back together, and getting married — the beautiful smooth blue pebbles on its cover a soft presence in the back of my life. Driven by the English major’s vague guilt at not having read all of the Canon, the recommendation of a friend, and the glowing praise of the greatest living American writer, I finally tackled it.

Woolf's book in front of a picture of lots of books
Prettiest book I own, and I didn’t open it for a over a decade.

It is the story of the Ramsay family, their hangers-on, and the time they spend at a beach house on the Isle of Skye. Each page was a struggle. This is the kind of book for which critical praise exists — if I hadn’t taken it on faith that this book was great, I probably wouldn’t have gotten past p. 50. Each sentence is so incredibly dense, sometimes German in its refusal to resolve until the final word. Very little happens. There are heaping piles of interiority. But it’s so good. The language is perfect and sure. Woolf’s understanding of the inner processes and concerns of her characters is powerful. The flow from perspective to perspective is effortless, a smooth stone skipping across a clear stream.

Mrs. Ramsay is the dominating voice of the first section of the book, and Woolf’s expert use of stream-of-consciousness means I know Mrs. Ramsay better than I know many of my actual friends. Nearly everything in the book is stream-of-consciousness, happening in the moment, inside this or that character’s head. One example is from the onset of night, when Mrs. Ramsay is finally freed from all the emotional work of being the matriarch, the social center of the entire extended household:

For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

Woolf had so little space (225 pages), and for many characters could only give slivers, but the artistry of it is that those slivers were everything — I barely read anything about James and Cam (youngest son and daughter of the Ramsay clan) but have such a powerful understanding of who they are because the small pieces of them I was given were so perfectly selected as to sketch an entire human being.

BIG spoiler coming up, but I mean, there’s barely any plot, so

And Mrs. Ramsay — oh Mrs. Ramsay. Kind matriarch, wants the best for everyone. When she dies, it is sudden and unexplained. The way the book treats her death closely mirrors actual familial loss. Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, will, and body fill the first section of the book. In the last section, she’s just gone. Absent, with her friends and family wandering around trying to see the shape of their lives now that she’s not in it. The vacuum left by her loss pulls at everything that happens for the rest of the book. Lily Briscoe, a family friend, stands on the lawn of the beach house and thinks of Mrs. Ramsay:

To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have — to want and want — how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! … [s]uddenly, the empty drawing-room steps … the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness.

That is what grief is. To want and want and not to have. The physical hollowness of loss. All the pieces of your life swirling around a center that is no longer there. My mom died last summer, and this is how I felt. This is how I will always feel. And Virginia Woolf is good enough to capture this piece of universal human psychology in a century-old book.

I am a huge partisan of action, of Things Happening in Books. Literature was invented for story-telling, not to impress your graduate advisor, and when authors forget that, the result is the most boring book ever written. However, when a practitioner of interiority literature is as impressive as Woolf, when her insight pierces to the center of all human thought and action, the absence of a car chase or two barely matters. The things that happen in our skulls are events, after all, and an author capable of accurately capturing what makes us us is a gift.

Oathbringer is the best action fantasy of the year

The latest entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series cements his reputation as the king of high-octane fantasy

There are three reasons to read Brandon Sanderson: the size and originality of the worlds he builds, the scientific rigor of his magic systems, and the river-in-flood irresistibility of his action sequences. The Stormlight Archive, his projected ten-volume magnum opus, is magnificently ambitious (ten volumes, ~1200 words each, should be done when I’m in my 50s), and coming later in his career than his wildly popular Mistborn series, it’s more sophisticated. The writing is smoother, the action is tighter, and the actionless parts are more interesting. He’s better at making characters you really care about, and the mythology of the world they live in approaches many actual religions in complexity.

In Oathbringer, the ancient evil that has haunted Roshar for millennia returns. The Everstorm has raged across the continent, transforming parshmen, an enslaved humanoid species, into a standing army bent on the eradication of humanity. The Knights Radiant, an ancient order gifted with magical powers for the defense of human civilization, have begun to return. Normal people manifest powers seemingly at random, and the ex-general Dalinar, the former soldier Kaladin, and the noblewoman Shallan Davar are frantically trying to collect these new Knights and to forge the countries and kingdoms of the world into an organization that can resist annihilation.

Oathbringer is a glorious mess. Glorious is a well-earned adjective, and mess might be unfair. It’s got all the goodies people expect from Sanderson, but it does stumble a bit. It’s so much slower than the previous entries. Many sections are overdescribed (not to Robert Jordan levels). For example, there’s an entire chapter about a soldier making soup. His comrades are training in the background, and the frame serves as a window into the bonds among the group. At the end of the chapter, you know more about the characters and the world. It’s worthwhile, but it’s really hard to forget that you just read an entire chapter about making soup. There’s also only one mega-climax at the very end of the book (instead of a series of smaller, but still epic, conflicts throughout the book, like midseason cliffhangers). There is action, and there are fights, but they feel more like skirmishes, scraps unworthy of the explosive finale. Finally, the amazing powers Kaladin and the other Knights Radiant began to master at the end of Vol 2, Words of Radiance, are used for mundane tasks for a lot of the book. There are exceptions, but Kaladin mainly uses his powers to fly from point A to point B. Compared to the very first pages of the very first book, where the Assassin in White uses his powers to engage in one of the most impressive fight scenes in all of fantasy literature, it pales. The finale more than makes up for it, but that doesn’t change that for most of the book, Kaladin’s Windrunner powers were basically a supernatural Greyhound bus.

This book is still great, and you should buy it now. Sanderson deepens the mythos he set out in the first two books, and each new facet adds more beauty and interest to the gem-like clarity of what he’s built. Sanderson has such an innate sense of place that what he describes is tangible. Mystical mountain keeps, overcrowded markets, barren wastes, all of it is there as a solid presence, not just a series of descriptions. Also, when the hundred-page climax comes, it is jaw-droppingly good.

This review ended up being more negative than I expected — I loved this book. I read it in three days. I guess the bad is sticking out here because Sanderson so reliably delivers greatness that it’s become background — invisible because it’s expected — and the less-great stands out because it’s so rare. I think Sanderson’s ambition is behind a lot of the issues I had with the book, but it’s also what makes it the greatest action-centered fantasy currently being written. There’s so much happening that sheer inertia makes the story hard to steer — it takes a lot to get anything moving in a different direction. Sanderson is a man dragging a boulder uphill. He might stumble, he might be a little red in the face, but he still gets it to the top, and when it rolls down the other side, it crushes everything in its path. The final battle of this book is mind-blowing. Everything that felt a bit awkward as it was moved into place throughout the rest of the narrative is exactly where it needs to be by the end, and it’s amazing because there is so much dovetailing so perfectly.

Why You Need to Read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage Immediately

Kindle photo of La Belle Sauvage

The first entry in The Book of Dust returns to one of the most solidly realized worlds in fiction

La Belle Sauvage is a wonderful, waterlogged fever dream built on the bones of a palpable reality. Readers who were transported by the original His Dark Materials trilogy should read it, without a doubt.

Pullman’s granite-solid sense of place

Pullman’s most impressive talent is how painstakingly he can build a place without letting boredom seep into the details. The first half of the book is an introduction to the world of Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent if unassuming 11-year-old, an innkeeper’s son who does odd jobs for the nuns across the river just outside Oxford. Pullman describes anbaric cars, naphtha lamps, and Protestant nunneries who serve Geneva instead of Rome, all those little pieces of difference from His Dark Materials that add up to a jarringly strange and exciting world. He also describes Yorkshire pudding, kitchen chores, school lessons, and reading — the standard building blocks of normal life.

For a good chunk of the book, Malcolm’s life is slow and sedate, but the things he does and where he goes are so powerfully described that it’s not boring, and suspense is always hissing at the edges of the narrative, whispering here and there like a fire just starting up — there’s no blaze yet, but the heat is there, and the first questing tongues of flame are licking the edges of the logs.

Without imagination, literature is nothing

The sheer joy of Pullman’s imagination is in full force here. The strength of his fantasy is its matter-of-factness. He grounds the fantastic so deeply in the everyday and uses it so sparingly that when it hits, it’s got the brightness of the strange but the weight of normalcy. The main action of the narrative is fleeing down the Thames in a canoe to bring Lyra to safety. Within a pile of mundane concerns — evasion of pursuers, feeding and changing the baby, protection against the weather — suddenly Malcolm and company meet a minor river-god who allows them to pass, or a child-sick faerie queen who attempts to steal Lyra. There’s the general background radiation of the bizarre — daemons, an ascendant and monstrous Church, alternative terminology (anbaric instead of electric, naphtha instead of oil lamps) — but outbreaks of the truly weird are rare, thus more powerful and believable. Pullman does not abuse the suspension of disbelief, so he can go farther when he invokes it.

Without realism, fantasy is nothing

The greatest feature of Pullman novels is that he treats children as children — that is, as complete people capable of experiencing pain, loss, courage and fear. Kids in The Book of Dust have to deal with the Real World, just like kids here do. When Malcolm is being pursued by someone who would hurt him, he beats him to death with a paddle, he feels each horrifying, grisly stroke, and he watches the blood pool out of his victim’s head. By contrast, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most courageous thing the Pevensies do is follow Aslan around until he pounces on the White Witch for them. Narnia is about the complete abdication of personal responsibility to a higher power, and The Book of Dust is about the terrifying responsibility of making human decisions in an inhuman world. There’s actual gristle in the challenges Pullman’s pint-sized protagonists face, and the solid reality of his characters’ struggles makes this an appealing book for readers of any age or genre affiliation.

Why is Lord Dunsany’s fantasy so delightful?

The progenitor of fantasy literature writes with more creativity and style than his legions of imitators

Lord Dunsany is the grandfather of modern fantasy fiction. Tolkien set the world on fire with fantasy, but he used Dunsany’s torch. The 18th Baron of Dunsany launched his literary career in 1904 with The Gods of Pegāna, in which he constructs an entire cosmogony from whole cloth — a literary first for what is now almost required for any epic fantasy. For those who want their foundational fantasy texts a bit lighter, we’re looking at “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” today, one of Dunsany’s many short stories.

It’s one of a selection from In the Land of Time: And Other Fantasy Tales compiled by S.T. Joshi.

Books and giraffes and Dunsany
Threatening, massive dragon, pulsing bright but obscured sun, weird angel lady? Yep, it’s Dunsany!

Dunsany uses a well-worn fantasy narrative, but stuffs it with invention

The actual narrative structure of the story is exceedingly simple. Man’s village is threatened. Man attains magic sword. Man hits bad things with magic sword until bad things are gone. The framework is not much, but what Dunsany hangs on it, the sheer inventiveness and substance of the world he drapes around the cheap coat rack of the narrative is what makes him a foundational author. Let’s start with that magic sword: Leothric doesn’t just yank it out of a rock like some idiot. No, he has to fight “the dragon-crocodile who haunts the Northern marshes” and is made entirely of metal, and who has in “the midst of his back, over his spine…a narrow strip of unearthly steel. This strip of steel is Sacnoth, and it may be neither cleft nor molten, and there is nothing in the world that may avail to break it, nor even leave a scratch upon its surface.”

The hero of the story, Leothric, kills the beast and then gets the invincible sword Sacnoth by chucking the body into a furnace until the rest of the dragon-crocodile’s body melts away from it. If you know of a cooler way for a hero to get his magic sword, please comment with it.

Sword won, Leothric heads to his foeman’s castle. He enters the castle, goes from room to room, sees weird things, vanquishes weird things, and then meets with the evil wizard who is creating problems for his village. It’s not in the quality of the plot the Dunsany gets you, it’s in the depth of his world and the strangeness with which he populates it. His vision is potent, and his language delivers it undiluted to his readers.

Any nincompoop can stick a sword in a dragon. Leothric does it with style

What follows is just one example of Leothric’s trials inside The Fortress Unvanquishable:

Outside he felt the night air on his face, and found that he stood upon a narrow way between two abysses. To left and right of him, as far as he could see, the walls of the fortress ended in a profound precipice, though the roof still stretched above him; and before him lay the two abysses full of stars, for they cut their way through the whole Earth and revealed the under sky; and threading its course between them went the way, and it sloped upward and its sides were sheer.

Upon this narrow way over an endless abyss inside a castle Leothric meets and must slay the dragon Thok:

And he smote deep with Sacnoth, and Thok tumbled into the abyss, screaming, and his limbs made a whirring in the darkness as he fell, and he fell till his scream sounded no louder than a whistle and then could be heard no more. Once or twice Leothric saw a star blink for an instant and reappear again, and this momentary eclipse of a few stars was all that remained in the world of the body of Thok.

This one scene can stand in for what Dunsany accomplishes in his entire body of work. Any hero can slay a dragon, but Leothric enters a room in a castle that inexplicably contains an abyss, whose only light is that which comes from the stars on the other side of a depthless hole in the Earth. He kills the dragon, and its corpse tumbles through the endless dark, blocking starlight as it falls. The imagery is deep and rich enough to to make its reality rock-solid, and the contrast between the solidity of his description and the strangeness of what he describes is the key to the delight Dunsany manufactures in each story.