Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Musings: Among Others

Among
Jo Walton is an author I've wanted to read for quite some time.  I particularly want to read her Tooth and Claw, but Among Others was the only book by her available in the library, so I went for that one instead.  A quick search on Google tells me that there are seventy instances of this book being mentioned in my "personal network," which means that many of you have already read the book or mentioned it somewhere or other.  I must have forgotten all of those reviews, as I didn't really have any idea what to expect when going into this book.

Among Others is not an action novel.  In fact, there is very little movement at all in the book- the narrator, Morwenna, spends most of her time reading in corners of rooms and trains.  Sometimes she walks to a bus stop.  Morwenna, or Mor, as she calls herself, was injured when she was hit by a car.  Her twin sister, Morganna, was killed in the same accident.  As the story unfolds, we get small hints as to what exactly happened. Mor and her sister had to take a stand against their mother.  Morwenna came out permanently scarred, and Morganna didn't come out at all.

Now, Mor lives with her father and is sent to boarding school, where she feels so left out and lonely that her only real friends are books- science fiction books, in particular.  And we follow her there and witness her desperate attempts to keep away from her mother, her suspicions about her father's family, and her yearning desire to have a group of friends that understand her.

When I reviewed Diary of a Provincial Lady, I wrote out a list of all the books mentioned in the Provincial Lady's diary.  Among Others is also written in diary format, but it mentions so many books that I can't even begin to compile a list.  And, really, the books are mentioned in a way that immediately makes you want to put every science fiction and fantasy book ever written on your wish list.  Mor doesn't just read- she really gets what she reads and has a lot of Deep Thoughts about it.  So when she mentions Lord of the Rings, she doesn't mention it in passing as a "really great book" or anything like that.  She clearly has a deep and abiding passion for Lord of the Rings.  It's the book she uses to escape from her own world, and to draw connections between an author who lived through so much and imagined so much and herself.  She says once, "When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn't all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head."

In some ways, I was overwhelmed by Mor's detailed description of pretty much every single book she read over the course of six months (which was a lot of books), plus many others she had read before.  She mentions so many books and authors, describes large themes and the methods in which different authors tackled them.  She talks about characters and settings and science and history, and it's all amazing and lucid and candid that it's hard to take in sometimes.  Really, in many ways, this novel is Jo Walton's homage to the science fiction books that formed her life, rather than a novel in the strictest sense.

But that is not fair to the book.  Among Others deals with teenage angst in a way that is very refreshing and imminently readable.  Mor has gone through much more than her classmates in her life, yes, with an insane mother and a dead twin and moving from Wales to England.  But she still wants the same things- she wants friends, she wants to be accepted for who she is, she wants someone with whom to share some secret moments.  She really is a typical teenager in some ways.  Except she's not.

One of the most interestingly ambiguous aspects of this book is Mor's belief in magic and fairies.  It's hard, as a reader, to get a real handle on whether the magic is real or just in Mor's head.  This is made even harder by Mor pointing out that there is always a way to disprove magic and chalk things up to coincidence or to set out a line of why things happened when, without magic.  But that doesn't mean that magic isn't there.  In some ways, this makes Mor an unreliable narrator.  But it's impossible not to trust Mor because she herself believes so completely in the magic occurring around her.  It's just the skeptical readers who aren't sure what to think.  I really loved the subtlety of this because the argument could go either way.  Is Mor imagining certain situations and nuances that aren't there?  Or is she the only one who notices what's really going on?

I think the only part of this book that really disappointed me was the ending.  It seems fairly obvious that at some point, Mor will have to confront her mother again, but this is done so randomly that I couldn't really take it seriously.  I didn't feel the same fear as Mor did for her mom, and so the climax didn't cause me to catch my breath as much as I expected.  That said, though, the climax works from both an "I believe in magic" and a "Mor is just an adolescent who is starting to see herself as her own person" perspective, which I really appreciated.

One of my favorite lines of the book is this one, when she sees the ghost of her dead sister:
Nobody could tell the difference between us, but of course we always were different.  Since she's been dead, I'd almost forgotten, or not forgotten, but not thought about her as her distinct self so much, more about the two of us together.  I'd felt as if I'd been torn in half, but really it wasn't that, it was that she had been taken away.  I didn't own her, and there were always differences, always, she was her own person and I'd known that when she was alive, but that had blurred in all the time since when she hadn't been there to defend her own rights.
I love this- it really describes perfectly what happens when a person close to us passes away and is only alive still in our (very biased, very personal) memories.  It's no longer that person, but your memory of that person, that lives on.

The language of this book was so lovely, and the narrator so engaging, that I really just fell in love with Mor.  She's such a precocious teenager, and more than anything, she made me want to dive right into the science fiction genre and read all of her favorite books.  I am so excited to read more by Jo Walton!

35 comments:

  1. Mor really was an incredible narrator, and I love that last quote you shared too. And yes, you definitely need to read Tooth and Claw at some point!

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    1. Yes, I want to find it so badly! Still looking for it, though...

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  2. Super timing! I just put the sample of Tooth and Claw on my Kindle as a step toward buying it--as a reread, because I loved it so much. Among Others is one of the few Walton books I haven't read yet. I really want to, though--it sounds intriguing, and she always pulls off these remarkable concepts and makes them intimate, readable stories. I highly recommend Farthing, as well!

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    1. Oh, wonderful! I'm so glad you have read and enjoyed Tooth and Claw, that means a lot. We really are book twins in man ways :-)

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  3. I sort of felt this book would be best appreciated by people who had read at least SOME of the books she talks about!

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    1. I know! I also couldn't really believe that Mor remembered SO MUCH about books she had read years ago, when I can often not remember books that I read like, two weeks ago. Also, as the book was set in the 70s, I was not sure if every book mentioned had been written before then, because I had heard of a good number of them (though read maybe two or three...), and I was surprised that so many had been written so long ago. TOTALLY overwhelmed by it!

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  4. I love the cover of this one. I am not sure it's for me though. The story sounds interesting enough but there are so many other books I want to read that I doubt this one will make it to the top of the list!

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    1. Haha, I know what you mean. I never really know what puts a book at the top of my TBR list, but it generally takes a while for a book to get there!

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  5. I second LibraryHunger's recommendation of FARTHING. It's the start of an excellent series that touches on a lot of themes that I'm sure will resonate with you.

    Someone on Pinterest put together an Among Others pinboard that shows every book Mor mentions. It makes for impressive viewing, especially since the creator used lots of great vintage cover art.

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    1. Farthing is the start of the alternative universe WWII book, correct? It's definitely one I want to read, so I will look into that series as well.

      That's such an awesome pinboard idea! And must take a LOT of effort, so wow...

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  6. I need to read this book, and the fact that it deals so heavily with science fiction makes me think it's a book that mu husband would enjoy as well. It sounds so introspective and deep, and I loved the quotes you shared and your reactions to the story itself. I need to find this book, and so I am off to see where it can be had. Fantastic and very touching review today, Aarti. I enjoyed it very much!

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    1. I forgot Frank really enjoys science fiction- yes, I think it would resonate a lot with him, especially if he grew up around sci fi like this protagonist did.

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  7. I really want to read more Jo Walton, but I haven't picked anything up by her since I read this one a while ago...

    And, I am off to check out the Pinboard Memory mentions. That's cool!

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    1. She is strangely hard for me to find in libraries and used bookstores, so perhaps she's the same for you. Or, maybe you just have many other books on your list to read that demand your attention first. That happens far more often.

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  8. There are so many reasons why I want to read this book. I'm intrigued by the premise, the fantasy aspects, the unreliable narrator and I love a book and can't resist one when it sends me off to read other books. Great review!

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    1. I really like unreliable narrators, too! I may have sold Mor too heavily as one, though- it's not like you think she's unreliable while reading the book because she so strongly believes in what she says. But in a more detached way, it's easy to see that maybe she is seeing more of what she wants to see and less of what is real.

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  9. I'm so glad you enjoyed this book, Aarti! I read it in January, and because of her, it sparked my re-engagement with science fiction, the one genre I had left behind more or less many years ago. I'm now busy reading in it, and sensing that same excitement I used to feel reading it, that Mor feels in Among Others. i'm still more a fantasy and mystery reader by nature, but I love the possibilities that science fiction discusses. I thought Among Others does a wonderful job of showing how books can reach in and give us a life raft, when life is overwhelming. As well as continue to be the thread throughout our lives.

    I agree about the ending, it did seem a little - rushed? or like you say, lacking in power, and I think it's because we never really see her mother alone, just through MOr's memories and other people's words. The ending was powerful too though, I found, despite this.

    Tooth and Claw is different, but oh so fun, too! I loved it also.

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    1. Oh, that's lovely! I am glad that one book can make you so excited about others, and this book definitely piques my interest in so many science fiction books! It's lovely. Now, if only I can get through the books I currently have on my nightstand...

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  10. Yay, glad you liked it! When I read the first paragraph I was a bit worried, because I have never had much success with books I picked up at the library because the book I really wanted wasn't there.

    I did wish the ending had been slightly different -- it felt, I don't know, weird and forced metaphory (metaphorced yeah that just happened WHAT IS UP) -- but the rest of the book was so enjoyable it was okay.

    What'd you think of Wim?

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    1. YES, metaphorced is exactly how it felt! I mean, was it necessary for the trees thing to happen? I dunno. I thought it was totally anti-climactic. But the rest of the book was good, so I didn't mind so much.

      Honestly, I could take Wim or leave him. I think the storyline around him was a bit forced. What are the chances of a town turning against a guy rather than the girl in the situation? He seemed smart and interesting and apparently was very sexy, but I didn't care nearly as much about him or the relationship as I did about Mor. I would have preferred more grandparents to more Wim, all things being equal.

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  11. I had read most of the books Mor was reading, which made this book fun, but then when I finished it, I looked up the couple of books I hadn't read yet, and they were good, too.

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    1. Well, that's a pretty good track record!

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  12. I just love good writing and language, that kind that just takes hold of you

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  13. Among Others is one of the few books I have read that does the book-name dropping thing I love so much in Pamela Dean's Tam Lin. Have you read Jo Walton's Lifelode? It is my favorite of her books, rather unusual but absolutely delicious, though it can be hard to find a copy of it.

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    1. I haven't! I will definitely look for Lifelode as that is one no one else has mentioned to me.

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  14. Jo Walton is AMAZING. Her "Small Change" trilogy (alternate WW2 where Britain makes peace with Nazi Europe) and "Tooth and Claw" are wonderful. I also don't know if you follow the Hugos much, but "Among Others" has been nominated in the Best Novel category. I can't wait to read this one :)

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    1. Ooh, that's wonderful! I am excited for Walton. I feel like she has gotten more attention recently, but maybe that's just because I know bloggers are reading her...

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  15. I feel as though this author's name has been hovering at the edge of my reading consciousness for years and years, but that recently, say, in the last six months, the typeface of it has been growing increasingly bold and brightly coloured. It seems like everybody is talking about it (like you've found in your "personal network") and that we bookish folk must be crazy NOT to rush out and find ourselves some Jo Walton right now. And I really really do want to!

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    1. That's such a lovely way of putting it- I completely agree with you! I feel like I never knew about Walton before more recently, and now she's everywhere :-)

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  16. I actually haven't heard that much about this book. I worry that with so much in depth thought about those books it would be difficult for me too mainly because I'm so not into sci-fi. Otherwise, it sounds like a great concept. I think I'll check out Diary of a Provincial Lady though!

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    1. I don't read much science fiction, either, but I found it very easy to enjoy this book. I hope that doesn't keep you away- it's really lovely!

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  17. I really liked Tooth and Claw and have been meaning to read more from here...just need to get to it someday!

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  18. You know, this review might have convinced me to give this book another shot. I really couldn't get into it, but I think I might need to revisit it. Thank you for convincing me!

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  19. Anonymous4/25/2012

    What made this book tricky for me was that I was around same age as the heroine in 1979 ... and, due to the Iron Curtain and due to the language barrier I did not have access to the most books mentioned in the book.

    Many of them I read as an adult - and often it was too late by then.

    http://nipernaadiagain.livejournal.com/

    PS: I could not log in thorough Livejournal - is this some known bug in the comments script?

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