I’ve been doing a lot of reading the past few months, what with getting a Kindle and taking a slow train across the country over the summer and then with my computer breaking down so that I had a lonely internet-less couple of weeks. I decided I ought to put my Comparative Literature degree to good use by reviewing some of them, especially ones I felt strongly about (either positively or negatively) so that you might get an idea of what to go forth and read, and what to avoid.
For starters, I’d like to talk about the Inkworld trilogy, but first I have a few words to say about the movie based on the first book, Inkheart, which came out in 2008. The basic plot is that Mo, a bookbinder, has the magic ability to read characters out of a book when he does it aloud. The movie keeps that plot – and then sucks all the charm out of it. It’s actually a wonder I bothered to read the book after seeing the movie first.
The movie Inkheart, see, is an epic story of an epic battle. But it’s not the epic battle that’s in the book, or the epic battle of the book-within-a-book (1). No, the movie is the epic battle between Paul Bettany’s magical ability to turn every movie he’s in into pure gold, and Brendan Fraser’s magical ability to turn every movie he’s in into pure something-that-isn’t-gold. I do not know what it is about the man – it can’t be something as simple as being a bad actor as much worse actors go far simply choosing characters that are actually themselves, thriving off Meisner’s “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” Perhaps it’s simply phenomenally bad luck on his part in the movies he or his agent choose to be in. There must be something appealing in him, as the author, Cornelia Funke, mind-bogglingly claims he inspired the main character. I can only hope that his movies are better after being translated into German.
Because I believe there can be something Gained in Translation (2), though I am still a hard-core believer in learning the language whenever possible. I could be wrong since I can’t read the original, but I think being translated from the German added something to the trilogy. A book about books? That’s a recipe for pretentious disaster right there. I mean, I love books, and will talk on end about them, but when a character starts saying things that I would every day it makes me sick, it’s like looking into one of those distorting mirrors you see in circus “fun” houses. But something about the translation lends the Inkheart trilogy a tone of old-fashioned-ness, as though it were a folk story or fairy-tale. If an American had wrote this book, I kept thinking, I probably would have tossed it across the room (3), rolling my eyes, “Ooh, meta-fiction, how clever.”
Instead I found the first book of the trilogy to be a charming YA fantasy, and enthusiastically continued to the next two, Inkspell and Inkdeath. I’ve noticed other reviewers saying that while the first may be suited for children, the others are noticeably darker – they say this as though it’s a bad thing. Personally I am all for the gradual darkening of children’s series. They should grow up as the kids reading them do, Harry Potter being a prime example. The first came out when I was twelve and the last when I was twenty-two. If there hadn’t been a serious advancement in adult tone and content, I don’t know that I would have been interested enough to continue (4). I read The Hobbit in elementary school and Lord of the Rings in middle school (well, middle-school-ish, I didn’t really go to middle school). It’s just the natural progression of things, like starting with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ending up with Othello.
And call me a pessimist – which I don’t believe I am – but I love literature which has dark elements, if they stay within reason. The latter two books of the Inkheart trilogy fulfill that criteria to a T. It is actually impressive at some points – I have no idea how Ms. Funke does it and can only conclude that it must be a German thing. Starting at some point in the second book and continuing almost non-stop until the end – Everything Goes Wrong. I don’t know how so many terrible things can happen and yet it not descend into “Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies” ridiculousness. It doesn’t, incredibly, it felt like plausible and realistic misfortunate at every turn. It felt like historical disaster, like a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy.
And yet, and yet, she doesn’t resort to the clichés authors often use because they know it will instantly tug at the reader’s heartstrings. There are plot twists that, as horrible as they are in real life, I only roll my eyes at in fiction because they’re so obvious – a child getting killed, say, or a woman getting raped. Ms. Funke comes up with some extremely creative ways to make her characters suffer – while still being in the realm of, “Yes, I could see this happening to me were I a fantasy character.”
And every one of the characters suffer, my goodness, do they. All of the big things go wrong, and then the alternative ways people try out to correct the original mistake also go wrong, and meanwhile all the daily things that you’d think would be all right even though the rest of the world is chaos also go wrong. Every relationship, including the ones you’d think would be beyond any question a solid foundation, turn to betrayal, and even the cute little teenage romance of the first book becomes as bitter as pouring salt on a fresh divorce. The writer drinks, the fairies bite, in a move that harkened back to my much beloved T.H. White’s “Once and Future King,” someone kills a unicorn.
All that said, you’d think one would be curled up in a sobbing ball in the corner by the end. But somehow, perhaps it’s just me (pause for chorus of, “It’s just you.”) but I find it comforting for a book to go to dark places like that. It feels far less saccharine than books that ignore or deny bad things happening. It feels like real life to me – there’s sorrow and then there’s hope and maybe there’s both at once but it keeps going. I appreciate that in a book, and if you do as well I’d highly recommend the trilogy.
But not the movie (5). Don’t do that to yourself.
(1) What the actual story of the book-within-a-book is, is not exactly clear, not even after reading all three books in the trilogy. Are Capricorn and Dustfinger the respective villain and hero of Fenoglio’s novel? They don’t seem it – Capricorn’s idea of evil-lordliness is to make someone read henchmen out of a book for him, and the real-world setting of the first book renders Dustfinger rather ineffectual – he’s more of a hero in the third book that he kicks more ass than Chuck Norris.
(2) I read this short story by a Chinese girl. She had a correct but cautious grasp on grammar, so many of the sentences were merely fragments containing only the essentials, and she had invented some of her own adverbs where the English language was insufficient. All in all it ended up being a haunting [in many senses of the word] work that reflected the fractured mental state of the main character, a man who took some time to realize his beloved was dead.
(3) This is a lie. I have never tossed a book across a room.
(4) This is also a lie. I am obsessively compelled to finish a book series once I finish it, the way I am compelled to finish watching a movie even if I hate it, the way I am compelled to finish listening to a song or something dire will happen, the way I was compelled to tell you that was a lie just now.
(5) Unless you’re as big a Paul Bettany fan as I am, and your love can carry you across otherwise charmlessly kitschy waters.