This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 5.
Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week, Sara Gran recommends Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Greg Pak recommends Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles.
Sara Gran is the author of the novels Dope, Come Closer, Saturn’s Return to New York, and the Claire DeWitt series. She has worked with books as a writer, bookseller, and collector for most of her career. Her work has been published in over a dozen countries and as many languages. She also writes for TV and film and occasionally writes other things. Her latest novel, The Infinite Blacktop, continues the adventures of the hard-living, tough-talking private investigator Claire DeWitt.
Hi. My name is Sara Gran, and Pale Fire by Nabokov is my recommended.
I think this is one of those books that I have heard about for years and heard about for years and was very intimidated away from. I always thought it would be a challenging book, and it is a challenging book, but in the best possible sense of the word. I don’t remember when I first heard of it, per se, but I do know about two years ago I felt like I was up for a real challenge, and so I figured I’d give it a read.
Pale Fire is a very hard book to summarize, ’cause it’s really a couple of different books in one. The first half of the book is a long, long, very dark and very sad poem, and the second half of the book is a series of hysterically funny and delusional footnotes on that poem.
I read the book in a really unusual way. So as I said, the first half of the book is this poem, with the exception of the slow introduction, and then the second half is a footnote. I am very ignorant when it comes to poetry. I don’t really get most poetry. It doesn’t speak to me. I know it certainly speaks to smarter and more sensitive people, but most poetry is really lost on me.
So I read the footnotes first, because I knew enough about the book to know that that was a sort of legitimate way to approach it, and then went back and read the poem. So I’m going to suggest to you that you do the same. If I had started from the poem, which I find not only very challenging but also, it’s a very, very sad story. I don’t want to give it away, don’t want to spoil it, as the kids say, but it’s a very tragic poem. If I had started with that, I don’t know if I would have kept going. If you start from the middle out and start from the center of the book and read the footnotes and then go back to the poem, it’s a really different reading experience and one that was for me much easier and much more digestible, and starting with the funny half rather than the sad half made it much easier to keep going.
I found the footnote half of this book to be laugh-out-loud funny multiple times. I had a lot of airplane flights on the year or so that I read this book, and I can think of multiple instances I was on a plane and laughing out loud and people looking at me, sort of willing me to shut up, because I could not stop giggling, like a bit of a crazy person. It is hysterically funny. I had not thought of Nabokov as a funny writer. I had thought of him as a witty and clever writer. But the way he talks about the kingdom of Zembla and this character he creates, Dr. Kinbote, who is in fact the exiled king of Zembla, King Charles, the way that he talks about his life and describes his own …
The way that Nabokov writes about this kingdom of Zembla, which is definitely not real in our reality, may or not be real in the world of the book, but the character itself is a very, very self-important, very intelligent, very astute, very insightful, but also very ego-driven, self-important sort of ridiculous character. So he can just say sort of ordinary things and they can really, really make you laugh, because we know people like that. I know people like that, who have an utter lack of insight into their own egos and foibles. I probably am a person like that.
The poem is a very tragic poem. Again, I don’t want to give away what it is, but it’s a very sad, grounded poem about a tragedy that befalls a family, and one of the really heartbreaking things about the book is that the footnotes, being so funny and so lively, reveal that the person who wrote the footnotes, who was either Dr. Kinbote, professor, or exiled king of Zembla, King Charles, he considers himself to be the poet’s best friend. The poet is John Shade. Not only is Dr. Kinbote sexually obsessed with his best friend, John Shade, he has absolutely no acknowledgement that his friend is going through this tragedy.
And it struck me as one of the sort of great challenges of humanity is that we don’t really know what our neighbors are going through. We can be living next door to someone who is going through such an extraordinarily sad chapter in their life, and all we are thinking about is how badly we want to get into bed with them or how badly we want their approval of our poetry, or how badly we want their friendship. There is something that really sums up the human condition and the relationship between these two men in a very sad and way.
I am usually a very critical reader, and one of the things that was so great about the experience with Pale Fire is that I felt I could put my critical brain aside, ’cause I knew I was in the hands of a writer who was so much smarter than me, so much better than me. And I have a very high opinion of my own talent. I do not say that often. But of course, talking about Nabokov, reading those books, you were in the hands of someone who knows more about literature than I will ever know in my lifetime. And so I felt like I could put that critical part of me really aside and just enjoy the ride, whereas very often when I’m reading a book I’m picking on this and picking on that and picking on this, and that takes the joy out of it. But if people wrote better books, I wouldn’t have to do that when I read.
I say the descriptions of life in Zembla, the imaginary kingdom of Zembla, were some of the best parts of the book. And I think that I started this book knowing, of course, that Zembla was not a real place. I’m not a geography wiz, per se, but I did know that Zembla is not a real kingdom. By the time you finish this book, you will not be so sure that Zembla is not a real place, and it is now more real to me than places that I have actually been to. You know, I spent four years going to college near Boston. I think now in my head I have a better map of Zembla, especially the royal palace, in my head than I do of Boston.
And everything, the details, are so extraordinary. The best line in the book is he talks a lot about the garments worn by the fishermen of the coast of Zembla. I mean, he gets into the national costume of Zembla, the music of Zembla, the palace amusements of Zembla, the cuisine of Zembla.
it’s really inspiring as a writer to think that you can do that. It sort of opens a door to what I can do. I have to some degree in the books that I’ve done created worlds, and I write a series in which the world is … certainly not to compare myself to Nabokov, but it’s about the same degree removed from reality as Pale Fire is, which is certainly the only thing I would ever say we have in common, sadly. And this to me was such a roadmap of how to do a better job with that moving forward. And of course, it inspired me to try to do it at a much larger scale at some point.
And also, this idea of having a structure that is unusual, but is there to serve the story rather than just for the heck of it, to me is a very exciting way to think about writing a book. I do love the traditional, straightforward, classics novel. I am 46 years old, and I’ve written a whole bunch of those books. I have written a whole bunch of novels, and I still love doing it. It’s still one of my favorite ways to spend my time on planet earth. But the idea of thinking of writing a novel in a new way, of trying a new form, of trying something that I haven’t seen before, has always been a bit of a goal, and this really inspires me to try to take that and make it reality.
I started rereading it in anticipation of this conversation, and if I had more time, I would have just kept rereading it. It’s just one of those books that I’ve done with only a couple books in my life, which is when I did finish it, I went right back to the beginning and started reading all my favorite parts all over again.
I recommend it to people constantly, and I have yet to get a single person to take me up on reading it, because people are intimidated by it. It is not an intimidating book, especially if you do as I suggest and read it out of order, it’s challenging in the sense that it’s a lot to keep trapped and a lot to plow through, but it is a joyous challenge.
Thanks again to Sara Gran for joining us and recommending Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Her newest novel, The Infinite Blacktop, is published by Atria Books and is now available wherever books are sold. You can find out more about her on worldsbestdetective.com.
AD READ # 2
The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox
Greg Pak is a Korean American filmmaker and comic book writer best known for his award-winning feature film Robot Stories, his blockbuster comic book series like Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, and his record-breaking Kickstarter publishing projects with Jonathan Coulton, Code Monkey Save World and The Princess Who Saved Herself. He’s currently working on a new Firefly comic series for BOOM! Studios, as well as the sequel to The Princess Who Saved Herself, The Princess Who Saved Her Friends.
My name is Greg Pak and Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer and The High King are my recommended.
I loved these books when I was a kid and the Taran Wanderer book in particular hit me really hard. I just thought it was incredible. It was um, I…I…and to explain why, I should kind of set it up a little bit.
I think if you read them now, you will immediately kind of recognize the genre. They’re kind of swords and sorcery books based on Welsh myths. You’ve got, you know, kind of a scrappy young hero and a…interesting group of um, of…of…adventurers, uh, and they’re on a big quest to defeat a…kind of super natural horror enemy right?
They’re a great adventure, but that as they go on, they get sort of more complex with each uh, book thematically. Uh, because the young hero is a um…he’s an assistant pig keeper. (laughter) um, that’s his…that’s his job. He works for the wizard, he’s not…you know, he’s not the..the uh, you know, he’s not the lost, you know, the lost heir to the throne or anything like that. Um, as far as you know, as the story begins, he’s an assistant pig keeper. And he kind of gets pulled into this adventure because the magical pig he’s supposed to watch escapes and…and he ends up uh, going on uh…this huge adventure.
As the thing goes on he kind of um, uh…gets more and more responsibility as things amp up. Um, and throughout it there’s this kinda…he’s got this kind of longing to find out where he came from. And Lloyd Alexander really builds up this notion that Taran feels like he, you know, he’s got this ingrained sense that he…he should be of royal blood in order to uh, ask the hand of the…of the young woman he…he wants to marry some day.
Taran Wanderer is um, a book, uh, it’s the fourth out of five books in the series and it’s…and it’s this kind of bildungsroman . It’s when Taran goes wandering around the world uh…uh, trying to find um, his true parents. Find…and also along the way, figure out who he is and what he…what…what he’s here to do.
I’ll just set it up by saying it’s kind of like the small d democratic version of Lord of the Rings. It’s…it’s like the peoples book, it’s um… Lloyd Alexander was…he was American actually. He…he…he…he was from Philadelphia I think and…and you know, kind of a funny…and he…like I think during World War II, he was stationed in Wales and kind of fell in love with the landscape and everything.
But, to me these books have a very sort of democratic non-elitist, non-royal bias to them, which I…I just thought was really refreshing in a fantasy book. Um, it’s not about what blood runs through your veins. Or, what destiny has been laid upon you or whatever, it…it’s about what you do with your life. And who you are is not determined by um…by your…by your past or more specifically by your parents past or by, you know anything like that.
Um, so…so Taran you know, he…he goes around and he searches and he finds…he…he has all these different encounters with all these different people and kind of uh…uh…sort of acquires different mentors in a bunch of different villages and…and um, places along the way. Um, including a uh…uh…you know, he learns how to weave from a uh, from a…from a woman w…weaver master. And he learns how to make pottery from a…from a…from a potter. And he learns how to blacksmith. Like, each one of these things, it’s like, maybe that’s what I should be doing. And…and he tries and he works really hard.
It’s really valued, you know. That sense of labor and of training and of really working hard to do something and um, uh…and every one of these people um, that he encounters, you know he…he sort of…they…they are all (laughter), they’re like zen masters. They’re like, you know…I…I mean they’re just doing hand crafts, uh, quote unquote just, but eh…that just had a big impact on me as a kid. It was like, yes, any…any craft is art. Any skill…and any skill has to be earned and…and um, and that that’s…that there’s huge value to that. And that’s what we’re here for is to…is to do things and to build communities and…and to um, and…and…and that nothing is given, everything is earned.
It’s just kind of really great and humane and humanist and um, you know and by the end, again, I don’t want to spoil it too much, but…well, I’m gonna spoil it because (laughter)…
At the end he’s…he is um, and I can’t actually remember now if he… maybe he actually finds this out for sure in the High King. At any rate, he is not the son of a king. Nobody…he…his…he was found by this wizard at…at the end of this terrible , you know there was a terrible battle and the wizard was wandering through the uh…through this horrible um, battlefield where, you know, everybody in this village was slaughtered.
And, he heard a baby cry and there was this baby stuck, I think in the nook of a tree or something like that. And he took this baby, and that’s…and so, our hero will never know where he came from. And it doesn’t matter, you know? Um, and it all pays off at the end of the High King, because uh…and…and this also had a huge impact on me. I love the Lord of the Rings, right?
You know, I grew up with those books, I think they’re amazing, um, but (laughter)…but I got to say, eh…the…I mean the…the…the way the…the way Lloyd Alexander and the High King plays with some of those tropes, um, just resonates with me so deeply. You know, at the end of the Lord of the Rings, I’m gonna spoil Lord of the Rings for you too… …but at the end of Lord of the Rings, everybody piles into the big ship, right? You know, like all the elves and the wizard…and Gandalf and…and you know, like all…they all…they all just sail off to the other side of the world. You know, to sail off to the land where they can be immortal forever and pass from the world of men, you know? It’s like, they’ve earned it, now they get to go be immortal. They go to Heaven basically, but it’s sort of like an eternal, you know, Heaven on Earth. Um, there’s a…there’s a similar moment at the end of the High King, where um, it’s time for magic to leave the land. And um, and uh…(clears throat)…I’m getting choked up (laughter)…
..Even more than I thought I would, it kills me. Um, (clears throat), I…I’m literally getting choked up. Taran, you know, throughout the whole course of this, Taran’s befriended all these different people in all these different villages, and he’s kind of…he’s been the one who’s been able to bring people together to fight this terrible force at the end. It’s…and they win, not just through his, you know, great brawn or whatever, but because he’s able to bring so many people together.
No one person does it. And that’s another message throughout this whole story, is that it’s all about this group of people coming together. You know, like that…and that’s…y…you can’t win unless you bring folks together. And so, um…but at the end of the whole thing, it’s time for people to…to…to go and he’s earned this berth. It’s like the…all the descendants of you know, some great hero from the past. They all have this kind of royal blood and…and…and Taran has been invited to go with them to sail across the sea and be immortal.
Um, and…and at the…and he can’t do it. He can…he doesn’t do it because he sees all of the people who…(clears throat) (laughter/crying)…
…he was…um, because he sees all the people that he…he brought together and who helped him, and who he helped and um…and…and he stays. He…he stays to uh…uh…to help them. You know, to… because that’s where his responsibilities are. Um, and it just blows me away, you know what I mean? Like, that’s.. that…that was just a beautiful…a beautiful thing and it felt like that’s, you know, uh…I…I don’t know. I mean I…I just…these are my favorite kids books ever, and uh, you know among my favorite books period. And um, I you know, I just think that’s just a beautiful kind of sentiment and it was amazing for me to read that when I read that and…and, as a kid and to have that kind of uh…you know, that kind of message in my head. That it’s not just about, you know, adventure and chopping monsters up and then you know, seizing the crown and all the…all…you know, and the golden jewels or whatever (laughter). You know what I mean?
It’s not about glory, it’s about actually doing the right thing, you know, and that…that…that uh, that that’s you know…and…and the…and being willing to give…to give something up to help others.
I mean, I think back about the kind of stories that I’ve written over the years and um, you know even like…you know, like Planet Hulk, which is probably the story I’m best known for, uh…um, I was not at all thinking about Lloyd Alexander books when I was writing that, but in retrospect, you know, the Hulk goes to this alien planet. He’s, you know…he’s…he’s incredibly angry (laughter)…
…he’s been ex…exiled to this alien planet to bec…you know, he’s forced to become a slave and a gladiator and he just wants to tear things up. But then as the thing goes on, he bonds with these other uh…gladiators, people who are called monsters and…and they um…and you know, they…they team up together and…and you know in a kind of similar way, accomplish something that none of them could have done on their own. Um, uh…I mean that kind of narrative has always been very attractive and powerful to me.
I think that there’s um, maybe you know…(laughter)…maybe in hashtag 2018, this is particularly resonant for us, you know. … there’s no hero riding in on a white horse or wearing a black hat even who’s gonna come in and save the day. It’s gonna be all of us together.
Thanks again to Greg Pak for joining us and recommending The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. You can find his work wherever books and comics are sold, and you can back The Princess Who Saved Her Friends on Kickstarter until October 17.
Next week on Recommended, one author recalls the book that made her love reading again:
I was 16, I was a junior in high school, and I decided to pick it up. And I did not put it down until I had finished it. It totally re-sparked this love of reading, because it was honestly the first book that I had read in who knows how long that I actually felt like I could relate to.
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