Comfort Reading

Well, yes, I was going to finish writing up the DH2 post, but then visitors kept turning up in my lovely, almost-beachside abode and so I put off reading and writing in favor of a smidgen of doing.

It was like being on vacation, only I had to go to class every so often.

Anyway, the second DH post is manifestly not done, but I’ll go and talk about something else instead. And while recounting my adventures whale watching (we watched and the whales did not watch back. They were whales on a mission. They had a migration to do.) would take up some space, what I really want to talk about is the author Eva Ibbotson.

For those of you who are disappointed, here’s a picture of the dolphins who came to play with us:

Picture taken by my mom, who remembered to bring a camera

Anyway, Eva Ibbotson is a children’s-and-young-adult-books author whose novels I find to be surprisingly captivating.

Here’s where I insert the usual caveat. I’m not making any claims about literary merit, especially because I’ve given up trying to find a definition for literary. In many ways, they are repetitive and simplistic–morality is not very complicated in these books and the heroines can be almost appallingly good-natured. It makes you wish someone would just throw a temper-tantrum. And her YA books in particular tend, like most books that center around a love story, to be rather familiar. So for those of you who read this blog under the mistaken apprehension that all I read is great works of literature, you are in for a surprise.

However, just because something is not great literature (and, lets be honest, shouldn’t be because part of the charm of these books lies in how you can enjoy the familiarity) doesn’t mean its not worth talking about and, more to the point, not worth examining what the author does very well.

Eva Ibbotson does two things really well. The first is that she can create a well-rounded supporting character in about a sentence. She’s very good at this and (I admit, this will endear me to any author) particularly good at doing so with dogs. One of my favorite weird-artists/bloggers (who also writes children’s books, but since she’s less than ten years older than me, was not writing them while I was a child), Ursula Vernon, wrote about this when Ibbotson passed away in 2010* and more or less covered what I would have said about it. And because some days I enjoy being a lazy sod, I’ll quote:

“Ibbotson, on the other hand, writes about people that I know.  Her minor characters are particularly brilliant. The elderly anthropologist forced to flee Vienna who spends her days haunting the British museum and muttering about mis-classifications but is unwilling to say anything because she’s a guest in the country and she doesn’t want to be rude. The mother who makes daily pacts with God that she will be Good if only her daughter is returned safely. The young revolutionary who is terribly worried about her clothing and the proletariat, in that order. These are real people. I know these people. I don’t always like them, but I know them, and they behave far more like people I know and people I am related to than anything that ever dreamed of electric sheep.

“And most of them are kind, or mean well, or try hard. And most of the people I know are also kind, or mean well, or try hard, and yet most of the fiction I read is littered with people who do none of these things, and while I recognize that the world is often very unpleasant and there are very bad people out there, I am very drawn to Ibbotson’s characters, because I recognize them from the chunk of world that I personally inhabit.

“I’m not saying it’s perfect. Her antagonists are very very bad (delightfully loathe-able, actually) her heroines are very very good and somewhat undifferentiated and tend to fall into the virtuous-poor-girl-with-unquenchable-zest-for-life model. Frequently they are kind, loving, good, self-sacrificing, charming and generally beloved. In the hands of a less skilled writer, they would be exceedingly cloying. (Probably for some readers they are still gag-inducing, I grant you.) But the minor characters more than make up for it.”

Yes. That pretty much covers it. Ibbotson has this incredible gift for looking at people and seeing them as good people. Which doesn’t mean that her characters aren’t silly or foolish or very often flummoxed or mistaken by life, but Ibbotson is a kind author and she’s understanding towards them. If someone was writing the story of my life, I would want it to be her; she would understand.

I did mention dogs, right? I love Ibbotson’s dogs. (She and George Eliot get canine characters in a way few authors do). I’ll quote Ursula again, because I’ve hunted down that blog post and only have one of Ibbotson’s books out from the library right now (and it has a fluffy foot-warmer of a dog named Pom-Pom).

“But Ibbotson occasionally nails a phrase or something, and it just…works. She describes an unwanted and inconvenient mongrel as having an unshakable conviction that he is deeply loved, and I know that dog, because he lays under my desk and farts while I write.  She describes a character has having the vulnerable hollows at the back of the neck that prevent the parents of small children from killing them, a phrase I read aloud to Kevin, who knew exactly what she was talking about. She describes rubbing the place behind the ears where large dogs keep their souls, and of course anyone who knows a large dog knows that spot perfectly well.”

As I was saying: she knows dogs and she knows people.

What she also knows is how to make you fall in love with the scenery. Now, you have to remember that I was a kid who spent more time in Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Narnia and Cornwall than in middle school. I lived in these fantasy world, not entirely because middle school was hellish (for several reasons, one of which was that I was a nerd in a school too small to have a nerd population). Like most people, I survived the experience and learned from it and am probably a better person because of it (and if I take the occasional glee at checking the facebook pages of the girls who used to torture me and feel smugly superior…well, no jury in the world would convict me.) but my love for books that can create other worlds inside my mind remains undiminished.

Ibbotson, though not a fantasy writer, does this. She creates a world that is, in some ways, even more foreign to me than Middle Earth–pre-War Europe. And, yes, I know that a lot of it was horrible and unfortunate and people were oppressed, but what Ibbotson captures is what it felt like to be a child in a place like Vienna when it was still one of the cultural capitals of the world. She can take you to the Alps and make you feel like it’s more magical than fairyland. When I finish her books, all I can wish for is a time machine to go back and see this world that once was and marvel at how something so wonderful could have existed in a place that wasn’t merely made up for a book.

And, yes, I know that not everyone’s life was ice cream and candy (or strudel) and Ibbotson never pretends that everything is perfect. What she does, and does well, is look for the good. She writes to find what is good and kind in people and in places and in life. And while the child in me definitely enjoyed such stories, the adult (I suppose 25 qualifies me) I am, who sometimes looks at the state of the world and finds herself wavering between cynicism and sadness, needs them all the more.

If you want more information about Ibbotson there is, as always, Wikipedia as well as this great interview with her from The Guardian: Interview with Eva Ibbotson.

~~~

* I can’t decide if more famous people are dying or if I’m aware of more people, overall, and so I notice their deaths. I may have meditated on this before, probably around Spring/Summer 2011, when Diana Wynne Jones, Clarence Clemens and Steve Jobs all passed away and it was weird because it felt like a strange accumulation of death, but in a world of 7 billion people, at least an order of magnitude more people have passed away since I started writing this blog post. And on that creepy note…

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About

I'm a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My interests lie in the field known very broadly as the Digital Humanities and I focus on reading digital books (what happens to books as they become not merely digitized, but digital) and reading books digitally (how can we use computers to learn new things about literature). In what spare time I have, I read speculative fiction, transform long strings of yarn into apparel and decor and play with my friends' dogs while eagerly awaiting the day when we move to an apartment complex that will allow us to have one.

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3 comments on “Comfort Reading
  1. Ema says:

    Ah yes. Which witch and the secret of platform 13. Two of my favorites.

  2. Bill Benzon says:

    “I’m not making any claims about literary merit . . . ”

    Not to worry.

    I’ve spent a lot of time with manga and anime over the past few years. Part of the fun/challenge is that there’s no well-established high are canon to get in my way. I’ve got to think for myself—though, I suppose, Miyazaki is on something of a platter, & I’m willing to consider the possibility that he’s one of the greatest living film-makers.

  3. Karin says:

    I adored these; so much so that I can’t believe we haven’t had this conversation before. I reread Which Witch? and Platform 13 so many times that when Journey to the River Sea came out and my sister was looking for something to read and just thinking reading might be occasionally worthwhile I actually let her read it first, because I was that convinced that it would be good. And it was (obviously, I read it while she was asleep).
    It’s definitely partly about the supporting characters, but it’s also the zest for life thing – she bounds around the town or the jungle or the globe showing you all these things that make you want to dive in, despite all the nastiness that’s going on. Grown up books just don’t do that.

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