Sunday, January 17, 2016

Book 5: Piers Anthony's Xanth Books Are Like My Childhood Or Something I Don't Know It's A Metaphor

We went to a friend's wedding once and because I was one of the people chosen to read a passage from the Bible at the wedding (I did so with such verve that another friend was impressed: You really put a lot of emotion into it! he marveled) I had to go to the 'rehearsal dinner' the night before.  (Rehearsal dinners are silly. They don't cover anything that you couldn't take care of in five minutes before the actual ceremony. Oh, the groom stands on this side? Got it. Good thing I had to buy an extra meal for 25 for this.)

At that dinner, Sweetie and I, as grown-ups, got the chicken meal: chicken and a potato and some tired beans or something. The kid at the table with us got chicken strips, with crunchy skin, french fries, and I think Jell-O.

After a moment, when they served, I said "Well now I want the kid's meal," and Sweetie agreed with me. The other adults at the table looked embarrassed for me.

Piers Anthony's Xanth books are like that for me: Something that theoretically I should be over and not enjoy anymore, but I still do.  Book Number 5 was Vale Of The Vole, and I chose to read it because while reading Owen Meany I was thinking about some of the books I've read in my lifetime that have stuck with me for years-- decades, now -- and never been forgotten.  Most of them are the kind of pulpy paperback scifi/fantasy books that my Mom hated (my mom was someone who would never have served chicken strips and fries to adults at a party, let alone ice cream in coffee cups with forks, as we once did when we ran out of bowls and spoons at a family gathering). Alan Dean Foster and Piers Anthony, especially, loom large in my memories of favorite books as I collect hardcover versions of the books I love most of all.

Just like Star Wars has remained stuck in my mind as the greatest movie ever (I'm talking about Episode IV, A New Hope), the Xanth Books have stayed on the top shelf of my mind for nearly 3 decades now, since I bought A Spell For Chameleon at the bookstore in the strip mall in Delafield where we used to go play at the arcade and (in winter) go on the cross-country ski trail behind it.

It's weird that I still remember exactly where I bought that book, in fact. And that I remember so much of it. I've read books, great books, that I can hardly recall a single moment of. (American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, for example, and this one book that was about a giant hotel a guy built that was sort of weird and I remember it vaguely as being good but can't remember the title or author, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections). But some silly-ish books that are mostly puns and which contain far less action than they do intellectual puzzles of a sort, and expository dialogue, those are cemented into my brain.

That's probably not an accident, for two reasons.  First, back then there was far less to occupy a person. When I was a teenager, there was no internet and even when we got cable TV it wasn't all that interesting. There was one newspaper a day, and magazines, but the local library was it as far as books went -- that or Waldenbooks, or the independent bookstore at the strip mall. So I re-read books a lot more than I did now; when you read 1-2 hours a day (more in the summer) and you have a limited number of books, that's what's going to happen.  So the first 6 Xanth books I probably read 5 or 6 times each, at least, in between other books.

(That's why I love living the future so much: When I finished book 5 last night, I went to sleep secure in the knowledge that I could, in the morning, literally buy any book I felt like instantly, if I so chose. Then I didn't have to because I was able to borrow a book I've been waiting for, simply by clicking a few links on my library site.)

The second reason is that genre books are actually more likely to be liked and be memorable. I read an article after Terry Pratchett died that talked about how it's easier to become a bestselling author writing genre books rather than literary books, for a variety of reasons, but the one that I think applies best is that they hold up to re-reading so readily. When I think about how many times I've watched The Avengers or The Dark Knight, about how many times I've re-read a scifi or fantasy novel, compared to literary books or period dramas or other 'serious' adult endeavors, it's no comparison. Maybe it's different for other people, although I kind of doubt it: genre books and movies are, like all great junk food, hard to put down and addictive, even when you've read them before.

So I decided, as part of my 100 books, to finish the Xanth series. I'd read and practically memorized the first 6, ending with Night Mare, and clearly recalled reading 7, 8 and 9, too -- but the 10th one, Vale of the Vole, I didn't recall reading at all. This was a book released originally in 1987, when I was turning 18 and going off to college, and in the years after I turned 18 I'd go to school, drop out of school, spend a few years working at a gas station and a factory, break my neck in a car accident, have surgery, and move to Milwaukee and get my own apartment, so it's not all that surprising that I wasn't re-reading a lot of books in that period; I had a lot of other stuff going on. Unlike the first 6 (all published by 1983, and so all available when I picked up the first one that day in Delafield) I didn't get a chance to go over Vole again and again.

So when I got it from the library, and started reading it, it took me a few minutes to realize that I had, in fact, read it before -- but then it was in that sweet spot where I couldn't remember anything about the book so as I read it I kept thinking oh, yeah, that's right, and hey I remember that part.

You can go home again, it turns out, and everything isn't smaller or duller or anything.  Piers Anthony still holds many of the same charms for me: I recognize that the books are sort of silly and that the dialogue and writing is a bit clunky and that the puns are getting increasingly more oblique as the series goes on, but I don't mind.  Like Bugs Bunny cartoons and Star Wars and Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch and other things from when I was a kid, I enjoy them in a completely unironic fashion.

The plot itself is always sort of secondary to a Xanth book, but the plot of Vole is: Esk, the son of a nymph/ogre couple, is feeling dissatisfied, so he sets out to find the Good Magician Humfrey and ask how he can protect his family from a demon. He runs into Chex, a winged centaur, and Volney, a vole, each of whom has their own mission: Chex wants to know why she can't fly, and Volney wants to save his home, the Vale of the Vole, from a demon invasion.  The three of them end up teaming up on a quest to find help for Volney, and along the way meet an assortment of magical characters and have to try to solve various puzzles.

The Xanth books have less action than many fantasy books, and the magic is of the simple, deus ex machina kind, but as simplistic as the books can feel, Xanth really is a well-thought-out and intricate world, on a par with Middle-Earth or Hogwarts. True, Piers Anthony doesn't invent a language, but all the details of his world are thought out and stay consistent, and he even gives some thought to the ramifications of various aspects -- such as in the first books when the humans realize that the magic in Xanth is building up to unusual levels and causing humans to slowly die out.

They're not probably going to win a Nobel prize for literature, but people could do worse than getting hooked on the Xanth series. I heartily recommend reading everything Piers Anthony ever wrote -- you could get to 100 books easily given everything he's written; my mom used to also say that she suspected "Piers Anthony" was a pseudonym for a group of writers the way Babysitters Club books or the like are -- but definitely start with the Xanth books. And while you should start with number 1, don't worry about sequence. The order of the books is kind of important but each one can be enjoyed without too much backstory, and Anthony explains whatever you need to know.

PS: When I went to reserve the next one, I found out they're shelved in the adult section which I guess makes sense given some of the events in them. They're PG-13, I'd say.

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