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January 12, 2012

Instead of reading the next book on the nightstand, I’m working my way through Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz as I try to understand my counter-surfing, desk-snoozing, bell-pepper-stealing canines. Needless to say, it’s a very different read from my normal F/SF reading, although it’s been a great read so far. Will it illuminate Varda’s vegetarian obsessions? Will it eliminate my kennel guilt? We shall see, my fuzzies, we shall see.

I needed something to contrast from the last book to appear on the nightstand, George MacDonald’s Phantastes:  A Faerie Romance. This was a culture-shock of a fairy tale, originally published in (according to my copy, which may refer to a later edition) 1905.  Part of my difficulty was that the plot is like a cobweb that catches a variety of forest detritus, which would only give you a sense of the cobweb’s location if you were already familiar with the leaves and seeds of that particular forest.

There are bits of beautiful and haunting language and funny little fairy songs about flowers that bloom too early for the main floral revelries and yet the story as a whole made very little sense to me. The main character lives an entire life in a fairy woods and then returns to his own bedroom after his “death” to  a story that just evaporates from the page.

Characters are introduced and then go away, never to return. The main character is frequently warned to avoid things that he encounters anyway. He moves through the story by compulsion that felt, to me, as if was the whim of the author. I miss…well, plot. I want to feel that he is doing something and that there will be a purpose to the things he does.

Much of what he encounters, particularly when he is suddenly affixed with an evil shadow, doesn’t make sense to me and I suspect it is rife with metaphor and references that stream unseen over my  heads just as the fairies themselves were mostly unseen to the narrator. We are both lost in a forest and keep moving forward blindly–he because that’s what one does in a fairy forest and me because that’s how one gets through a book. The end of the story doesn’t resolve the experiences, rather it implies that more (random?) experiences are heading toward the narrator at some future point.

I was surprised by how I have become accustomed to our clipped and stripped text and how something as small as the adverb “lovingly” could incite me to frown at the story. Little by little, words such as “bathe” started to annoy me. When the narrator broke into his own story to repeat songs or stories that he “remembered” from his journey I started to flip forward to check how long his “memory” would last.

None of this reflects on the author. When I could give him space and focus, I saw some of the beauty of his phrasing and the careful shadings of the lessons that the narrator was learning.  In the end I was more puzzled by the book than anything. Just over a hundred years old and it is a curious artifact, though pleasing.

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