Tag Archives: lev grossman

Lev Grossman — they asked him anything

Friend of the blog Lev Grossman did an AMA on reddit tonight about his novels The Magicians and The Magician King.  (I wrote about The Magicians here.)  Lots of good material but I especially liked this from Lev on Narnia:

You know how you — by which I mean me — love your parents, but you’re also kind of permanently angry at them, all the time? That’s how I feel about the Narnia books. I really do love them. I’ve tried to make my daughter read them about 100 times. But I feel so bitter about them too — about what they did and didn’t prepare me for in life.

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Reading: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

It’s out! And America’s 67th favorite book on Amazon at this writing, which means it surely doesn’t need the tiny puff of publicity this blog can give it.  But here are my thoughts, anyway, on what Lev’s made.

  • It’s great!
  • It’s very much a fantasy novel about fantasy novels, or maybe novels more generally and how it ruins your life to take them too seriously.  Much is made of the analogy between straining to imbue things in the world with “meaning” and straining to move a marble with the power of your mind.
  • In this connection, note that the book is in one sense about a bunch of magicians, but in another sense about a book-within-the-book called The Magicians.  This makes me want to italicize the title doubly, but I don’t know how.
  • Lev’s last book, Codex, was also a kind of literary re-envisioning of the conventions of a usually non-literary genre; in that case, the Da Vinci-style thriller with little nuggets of erudition stuck in it.  But Codex sort of looks down on its genre from above with suspicion, while The Magicians views its genre with affection, even self-consciously excessive affection, and from within.  That works much better.
  • People are going to say it’s “grown-up Harry Potter” but the “grown-up Narnia” aspect is much more important.  Lev is really interested in this moment at which you’re starting to not be a kid anymore, and you have to decide whether to go native in Narnia, or to shut yourself off from Narnia, until you start to forget there was a Narnia — the Susan Pevensie option.
  • Lev’s brother Austin, whose novel I wrote about in this blog’s first post, is also really interested in Susan Pevensie; a whole section of his one-man show “The Genius” is done in her voice.  Am I trying to say that growing up precocious in an academic household in Lexington, MA, and going on to nestle in privilege and pride at Harvard, is something like spending your childhood in a magical realm whose charms adult life can’t match, and even seems, at times, to mock?  No.  I’m saying that Allen Grossman is a warlock and all his kids have logged serious time in dimensions unknown to us.
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Summary judgments, July 2009

  1. Away We Go.  This got widely panned as a festival of smug self-love.  Not true.  Yes, the movie starts with a series of vignettes in which its protagonists, a couple expecting a baby, come out feeling better than the variously ruined families they encounter — coarse drunks, dopey hippies, etc.   But the movie then brings them up against couples who are just like them — and, who, it turns out, are just as ruined.  I think the reviewers got distracted by the fact that director Sam Mendes’s other big movie, American Beauty, really is a moronic smugfest about the spiritual deadness of the American suburb — gaah, I’m bored even typing it.  This movie, though, is worth seeing.  The end, the earnest part, drags.  But overall I laughed out loud eight or ten times, which is infinity times as many as in a typical comedy.  Letter from Here liked it too. Dr. Mrs. Q points out that none of the comically awful families in this movie are done as well as the Leslie Mann – Paul Rudd couple in Knocked Up. But what is?
  2. Matt Stairs:  Old Guy, Good Hitter.  Baseball Prospectus excels in bringing me simple things like this about players I’d never happen to think about.
  3. The academic job market in math. In the toilet.  The AMS estimates that the number of academic jobs on offer next year will be down 40%.
  4. Lev Grossman’s new novel, The Magicians. Ace.  May make Lev a world nerd hero.  Will blog about this more in August when Americans can actually buy it.  (UKians can get it now!)
  5. Mika, Life in Cartoon Motion. CJ picked this off the shelf at Best Buy because he liked the cover, and I remember being knocked out by the single, “Grace Kelly.”  It’s terrific — the best album in its genre I’ve heard since Erasure’s The Innocents. (Caveat:  it is also the only album in this genre I’ve heard since Erasure’s The Innocents.  I’m picky about dance pop!)  Anyway, watch the video below: if you don’t love it, you’ll hate this album.
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Grossman on Pullman on Lewis

Lev Grossman interviewed Philip Pullman for Time, and some of the outtakes made it into Lev’s blog. I thought His Dark Materials was superb on the axis of science-fictional inventiveness, but in the end didn’t function well as a series of novels, especially in the second and third books. It’s natural to set up Pullman’s rather anti-clerical series about British teens falling through to another universe as a kind of Bizarro Narnia, and it seems that Pullman himself sees his work this way: about Narnia, he tells Lev:

I think you’d come away thinking that the highest Christian virtue is martial valor. Courage in battle. You’d also come away believing that a lot of other things are part of the Christian message. Such as the disparagement of women. Such as a suspicion and hatred of people with dark skin who smell of garlic.

You’d also come away believing that the greatest task of a Christian would be to get out of this world, get out of this earth, as quickly as possible and go to the next one. Because what Lewis does with the children in that story is to take them through all these adventures, they see wonderful things, and they learn great truths, and so on, and then he kills them. Instead of letting them go free, as I think would be the moral thing to do, the Christian thing to do, to use these truths they’ve learned and these strengths they’ve gained to make the world a better place. To do good! But he takes them away. Doesn’t allow them to do that! Lucky children, you’re dead! You can relax now!

I read the Narnia books as a kid, not knowing much about Christianity and certainly not knowing the book was supposed to be an allegory. To me all the business about the “old magic” bringing Aslan back to life seemed like a cheap trick to get the author out of an impossible situation. So I’m not qualified to say what lessons about Christianity one is meant to draw from the books. But I can say that I certainly don’t remember martial valor being rated as the chief virtue — rather, you were supposed to be the kind and loving person that Lucy and Peter were, and Susan and Edmund weren’t, and courage in battle was supposed to follow from this.

But I might not be the ideal judge, since my favorite of the Narnia books was the trippy prequel The Magician’s Nephew, which is a bit like having The Silmarillion as your favorite Lord of the Rings book. (I really sincerely hope someone reading this is nerdy enough to have The Silmarillion as their favorite, and valiant enough to cop to it in comments.)

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Justin Fox blogs from Madison, Lev Grossman blogs from Planet Nerd

Two quick notes on Time Magazine blogs.

  • Business columnist Justin Fox blogs from Madison where he’s the Business Writer in Residence this week. So far he’s observed that lots of people here sit in coffeeshops with Macs and it’s kind of cold. Reading about the place you live from an outsider’s viewpoint is almost always of real interest. Once I had a long wait in the Frankfurt airport and parked myself in the bookstore with a German travel guide to the United States. In the introduction it said
    • “There are two things a German visitor needs to be prepared for in America. First of all, you are not allowed to drink outside on the street. Strange as it sounds, you can get arrested for doing so! Second of all, Americans love to fly the American flag all over the place, even on buildings that have nothing to do with the government. Can you imagine if Germans did this? The world would go crazy!”
  • I just found out that my old friend Lev Grossman, book critic at Time, has been blogging on all things nerdy since January. I wanted to include a long quote from his terrific novel Codex, but my copy’s in storage with most of the rest of my books. You’ll just have to trust me when I say he’s one of the only people (maybe Umberto Eco is another?) who’s figured out how to marry the genre conventions of the thriller with a perfectly tuned and delicate prose style. By the way, he and Austin Grossman (whose new novel I blogged about here) are brothers. Between the two they constitute a kind of ultimate and frankly intimidating authority on nerdy subjects. I once made the mistake of going head-to-head-to-head with them on matters related to the early history of Alpha Flight. Let’s just say they knocked me around like they were Aurora and Northstar and I was a Montreal car thief. And I subscribed to Alpha Flight!
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