Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Listening to Lovecraft and (Maybe) Learning to Love Audiobooks
H.P. Lovecraft is hugely influential in the horror scene, and it was getting increasingly embarrassing for me to be so unfamiliar with his materials. I had tried reading his stories before, but my eyes rolled too hard at the unspeakable, unmentionable, unimaginable, uncanny, and nauseating horrors that lurked everywhere. And everything of course turned the narrator mad, MAD I TELL YOU!

So I tried again, and just... no. I'd stop each time something un- was mentioned. I know it was the style of the time: I also read the unmentionable, nauseating grotesqueness of The King in Yellow that had inspired Lovecraft, and I get it that contracting syphilis and subsequently going mad was apparently in the back of everyone's minds as the worst imaginable (unimaginable?) horror.

Then I had a genius idea: I'll get a story collection as an audiobook, and I simply won't pause when I hear an eye-rolling description. I'll actually focus on the story and just let it roll over me.

Real genius.

I don't think I'm cut out for audiobooks.

I listened to the same 15-minute story at least three times, because I kept on spacing out. Crap, I forgot to email her... What should I eat... Oh, heh, this reminded me of that one time when... Apparently I need a reader who randomly yells words to keep me focused. There is no Lovecraft entry in this blog, because all I remember from listening to this audiobook multiple times through is snippets.

With that said... audiobooks work when I knit. A few weeks back when I was sick and home alone for a few hours, I put The Outlander on and pulled out my knitting. Sure, I was still spacing out whenever I had to count stitches or follow color work pattern closely, but it wasn't that bad. Unfortunately, I usually knit when I want to relax while at the same time being available to chat with other people or watch movies together with my husband. Adding an audio book to the mix changes knitting from a solitary activity while still being social to an extremely antisocial activity. If wearing headphones didn't already scream "Leave me alone!" the added sharp objects certainly help deliver the message.

I've tried bringing both knitting and an audiobook along to my commute, and it's not the same as sitting comfortably at home: I might not even get a seat on the bus, thus cutting knitting out of the picture. Then it's just me staring into space while avoiding accidentally ogling at another commuter as I listen to a book... which then leads to the idle hands issue and I'm soon thinking about when to get off the bus, what's all the stuff I need to sort out at the office...

As someone who works with the written word and quite often with the way words look when put together, it's hard for me to enjoy audiobooks the same way as printed or e-books. Yet there's something calming about listening to another human being telling you a story. I want to get in on that.

So, please share if you have good tips on how I could train myself better to listen to and enjoy audiobooks, because right now I'm at loss with this medium.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I used to be a fantasy nerd as a kid (the type who would memorize songs out of The Lord of the Rings), but then I got burned by Swords and Sorcery and Harry Potters, making me extremely skeptical when I'd get fantasy recommendations.

This recommendation came with a "I know you don't like school novels, but this is really good!"

Fine. So it's about teenagers going to a magical school, which as a concept that makes my skin crawl.

Here's the tl;dr instead of a rant: school novels--whether set in a magical world or not--reflect a system that just rubs me the wrong way. Kids are made to compete against each other to learn camaraderie--and bullying of kids they compete against!--and often make other, lowlier members of society/school their servants, or treat them as such. It's just one of those things I can't get over.

But I do enjoy having my preconceptions challenged! This novel was great.

Often, magic is only questionable if it's executed by an evil character for evil deeds. Instead of being just a cute skill, in The Magicians magic is a weapon that should never be used without understanding its consequences fully. But mistakes are made, because that's human nature.

The main character, Quentin, is a teenager who likes drinking and drifting, and he's gotten really good at sleight-of-hand acts, like pulling a penny behind a spectator's ear. He has a dirty secret: ever since he was young he's been obsessed with a fantasy novel series about regular kids finding a magical land called Fillory (very much like Narnia), but now he's too cool to admit it. There's just something weird about the way the Fillory series ended...

Quentin is suddenly pulled into an entrance exam to a magical school. He thinks he's pretty hot shit, showing the board his card and nickel tricks, but soon he realizes that illusions aren't what make a good magician. He watches his classmates break things and then rebuild them without touching. He's not entirely sure how he gets in, but us readers can piece it from the content of the exams.

Without spoiling anything, I really enjoyed this premise where a regular kid who is looking for his place in life gets obsessed with becoming good at this one thing--magic--and not letting go, even when his classmates are doing much better than he is. He simply dedicates more time to learning and practicing. Like with anything, talent just means you have had a chance to practice something over and over again, and I think that message is much better for teenagers than "you're just born with an innate ability to do awesome stuff. If you can't do it, then you probably should dedicate your time to something else you're already good at."

Further, Quentin is such a well-written character. I was cheering him on when he was struggling to do the best he could, but I was also infuriated with him when he was behaving like a complete asshat. He's a self-centered idiot. which makes him all the more human. He's just a regular guy who has issues and tries to make sense of himself and other people in bizarre surroundings.

Another cool aspect was how magic was handled in the novel. It wasn't about memorizing incantations and making things go poof, presto!--learning and practice both were physical activities, with lots of sweating and trembling involved. By the time Quentin learns how to transform into an animal, I could almost feel the physical sensation of the transformation through Grossman's captivating descriptions.

Then there were the bits that were absolutely terrifying. I almost gave up on the book early on, thinking it was a bit too teenage-y and pat with its pop culture and literary references, but then there was this scene... Oh man. I felt genuinely frightened, as if I were suddenly reading a horror novel. My palms were sweating, I swear. Grossman creates unsettling moments from then on, each making me question whether learning magic and living in a magic fantasy land is such a cool idea after all.