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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Salon: to Challenge or not to Challenge, that is the Question 4/13/08

Good morning, fellow Salon members!

It's been an unusual week here. We've run a full gamut of weather. Cooler temperatures earlier in the week and Thursday night we had torrential rain. Friday it rained more, with temperatures in the low 70s and for most of the afternoon we were under a tornado watch. Yesterday, it stayed an almost constant 41 and it threatened rain for the better part of the day. This morning, I woke up to 33 and snow flakes in the air, and it's forecasted to never leave the low 40s today. What I wouldn't give for a good stretch of warm, sunny weather... *sigh*

Of course, with the warmer weather also comes less reading time! Knowing I was going to be busy for the next couple of weeks, and knowing I had yesterday to spare, I spent most of the day reading.

Much to my surprise, I discovered on Friday night that Philip Pullman has released another story based in the His Dark Materials universe, Once Upon a Time in the North. It is a prequel of sorts, telling the story of Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison's first meeting and how they came to know each other. It's a quick tale, but well paced and well written. Since this comes before the events of His Dark Materials, you know that Scoresby, his daemon Hester and Iorek will survive the events of Once Upon a Time in the North, but I will say that the gun fight at the end almost had me on the edge of my seat. I found it very well written, and even knowing that they had to survive, I was still holding my breath until the climax of the fight! None of this is giving away spoilers to the book, from the very moment the main action of the story starts, I knew what was coming; it's fairly obvious.

I really enjoy the His Dark Materials books. There is so much thought put into the characters and their world. The idea of the daemons really intrigues me. Basically, their daemon in their soul, in animal form, that has a personality all it's own and is usually the opposite in nature to you, causing you to stop and think about your actions and to be your own personal foil.

I think the His Dark Materials books are one of those rare occasions where the book makes you think about the subject matter, and while I know there are plenty of people out there that do not agree with some of the aspects and symbolism of the story, I still feel it's a series everyone should read once. I won't go into the whys and hows of this series, as it starts to delve into one of those 2 subjects that I feel should never be discussed in public and I don't want a debate started at the Salon on this subject, but I know plenty of people who have used the books as a stepping stone to discussion, either for or against their ideals, and not gone off denouncing them right away as heretical. I think this is one of the most important roles books play in our lives, to challenge us, to make us reconsider and to think.

Of course, on the flip side of that argument, I think it's also important for books to be, simply, an escape from time to time, and that's just what Jonathan Barnes The Somnambulist is, an escape. A fun romp through a Victorian London that isn't quite ours, with characters that are just not quite believable, telling a story that borders on the absurd... and I loved every page of it! Part historical fantasy, part murder mystery, part political intrigue, the best way to describe the book is in the authors own words, from the very opening lines of the book:

Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.

Well, let me tell you right up front, that there is probably no literary value whatsoever found by the end of the book, but that does not take away from the book at all.

The Somnambulist centers around Edward Moon, an aging, falling from fame magician, and his enigma of a partner, who is known only as the Somnambulist. While being the title character to the novel, the Somnambulist doesn't actually play in the starring role in the book, but is simply always there at the right time it seems, and is the perfect foil to Moon. In his time, it comes to light that Moon has also aided the London police on several occasions, helping them solve seemingly unsolvable crimes. And this presents my one great complaint with the book: we hear about several of these cases from Moon's past, but that's all; we are never given anymore than off-the-cuff remarks about them, no details. I want to know more about Moon and his earlier cases!

The characters in The Somnambulist are just as much fun as the story. Obviously, Edward Moon and the Somnambulist, but there is also the Human Fly, the Albino, the Prefects, the Chairman, Mrs Grossmith, Mr Cribb, Barrabas, the bearded-lady whore... the list goes on and on. Each has a part to play in the story from beginning to end, and each person's story is, for the most part, tidied up by the end of the story.

My hope remains that Jonathan Barnes continues thrilling us with tales of Edward Moon and the Somnambulist; tales of their earlier adventures and cases that are only hinted at in The Somnambulist. This book may not be for everyone, but as escapist reading, I don't think you can do much better than this!

So there you have it, the question of the day. Is it better to read the book that challenges you, or to read the book that simply creates an escape from the everyday? I'd like to think that it's a little bit of both, that you need an equal balance of challenge and escape in your life to make it interesting.


Irish said...

I think that there should be a balance between those books that make you think. The ones that challenge you to reflect upon yourself and your place in the world. Then there are times when the world around us just gets too messy and convoluted so you need something to escape into. A story to lose yourself in so that you can forget about your troubles for just a little while. I call those books my brain candy books. For they are to the brain like candy is to the soul...a little boost of sugary goodness.

Anonymous said...

I hope the day will never arrive when I don't enjoy just sitting down and reading a story for the sheer enjoyment of the plot and be blowed to its literary merit.
Your week of weather makes even our rain, hail, snow and ice sound friendly, at least we haven't had any tornados. We do actually get them here in Birmingham, not often but nasty when they do arrive.