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Topic: Little, Big Group Read -- SPOILERS INSIDE!

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Subject: Little, Big Group Read -- SPOILERS INSIDE!
Date Posted: 12/27/2009 11:13 PM ET
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Hey everybody!

 

So a couple of us doing the fantasy challenge are going to read John Crowley's Little Big, and from what I've heard about it it is a book that lends itself to reading slowly and discussing as one goes along, due to the shifting through time and the many characters all related to each other. Therefore. . . I was wondering if anyone is interested in doing a group read? I'd probably like to start it soon-ish, not the 1st, but maybe the 15th of January or Feb. 1st. I'm down to lead it, but as I've never read the book before that might be a case of the blind leading the blind, so if anyone has read it before and wants to lead that would be great too.

 

Thoughts?



Last Edited on: 1/15/10 10:14 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 12/28/2009 11:38 PM ET
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I'm up for a group read for this, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to find a copy in the next couple of weeks.  Of course, excuses to go to the bookstore are always highly welcome. 

Date Posted: 12/28/2009 11:55 PM ET
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LOL! Who needs an excuse? That's my favorite pastime on a day off. . . well let me know when you've found a copy, I can certainly wait that long. . . ;)

Date Posted: 12/29/2009 11:57 AM ET
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Well, I can't go past a book store without stopping in and seeing what I can find, but with all the Christmas sales going on, I've bought something like 60 new books in the past 2-3 weeks.  I've been trying to convince myself to stay away from stores until I've read at least a decent portion of the ones I just bought.  (Only on 7/60 at the moment)

Of course, if I'm looking for a particular book, it's a guilt free trip.  The other half a dozen I'll surely find instead of the one I'm looking for will just keep the 60+ new ones company while they wait to be read. 

Date Posted: 1/9/2010 9:46 PM ET
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Bump. 

Just got my copy.

Though I blame PhoenixFalls for making by bookshelves groan under even more weight.

Date Posted: 1/9/2010 9:53 PM ET
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LOL, I feel just terrible about that. . . ;)

Well, since you got your copy and no one else has announced an interest in joining us, shall we set a start date of 1/15/10? That'll give me time to finish up my classics and mystery challenge books for the month. . .

And did we want to be really organized, as in we each read x number of pages every day and post our thoughts on the stuff we read, or do we want it to be a bit more free-form?

Date Posted: 1/10/2010 11:52 AM ET
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X pages/day wouldn't work since I'm sure we have different editions, but maybe something like x chapter/week or day might. 

I vote for free form though.  If you let me know about where you are, I'll more or less try to keep pace. 

Date Posted: 1/10/2010 2:07 PM ET
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That's true. . . didn't think about the editions bit.

Ummm. . . well I tend to have two speeds for my reading; either I read a book in one sitting or I read one to two chapters a day. Obviously I'm not planning on the first of those speeds for this book, since I want to discuss it, so as long as one to two chapters a day seems reasonable to you (meaning it isn't way faster or way slower than you normally read -- in my edition two chapters is about 50-60 pages) we can start on the 15th! And if we get a little further or stop a little short one day I won't worry about it. . .

Date Posted: 1/10/2010 3:36 PM ET
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A couple chapters a day is fine.

Lately, I'm reading about a book a day, but my normal rate is about a book every 2 days.  So it's not too fast a pace.  Also, I normally have at least 2 if not more books going at once, so nothing is too slow. 

Date Posted: 1/10/2010 4:54 PM ET
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Betcha you don't read this one in 2 days, Melanti, or even a week unless you just aren't paying attention to what you read.

I don'thave a copy of LIttle, Big any more and It isn't all that easy to get, but I will be happy to sort of sit in on this discussion. This book is as hard to evaluate as any I have ever read. Try starting with a simple question, "What is this book about?"

Date Posted: 1/15/2010 1:28 PM ET
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All right, it's Jan. 15th, and time for the reading of Little, Big. I shall post my thoughts on the first chapter or two sometime tonight. :)

Subject: First Impressions: Ch. 1
Date Posted: 1/15/2010 10:47 PM ET
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I will start by saying I have no idea how to lead a group read, so I am just going to post my thoughts as I read and hope they start discussion!

I just finished Ch. 1, and I must say I am impressed so far. Here are some things I was thinking about while reading:

Prose

Crowley's prose feels just exactly right for the story so far, meandering, thoughtful, full of generalities rather than specificities (I especially loved "they all lived in anonymous suburbs of cities in those states whose names begin with an I and which Smoky's City friends couldn't distinguish from one another"). I loved The Young Santa Claus, and the description of Daily Alice's trip into the rainbow was just exactly right, better than similar passages in other books I've read. (Which made me wonder if a trip into a rainbow just seems fairy-tale-ish and so many authors use it, or if other authors have Crowley's passage in mind when they use it, or if there's some even older work that everyone is aping) And speaking of Daily Alice, I wonder if that name is going to mean something, somewhere down the road? It's given a perfectly prosaic explanation in this chapter, but it feels like the sort of thing that could be weighted, thematic even.

Setting

I love the setting too. Smoky's map-reading in Somewhere to Elsewhere made me smile, I've already quoted the "states whose names begin with an I" bit, and I am very eagerly awaiting his arrival in Edgewood, that place that apparently isn't on any map, but must be found somewhere inside the pentagon made when you connect the nearest five cities. But something about the setting, the talk of City men and the Country house feels more English than American to me. Perhaps I am selling my own country short, but when something is set here I expect a feel of youth, and the crassness that goes along with youth, while the setting so far has a feel of timelessness and age about it. It feels small, too, which the U.S. never does to me. Maybe it's just that Smoky is walking from the City to Edgewood, and as I live in L.A. that thought of walking out of a city just seems absurd to me. I also can't quite pinpoint the era. . . I know the book was published in 1981, but it certainly doesn't feel like the 80s; it feels, if anything, more like the 20s or even the late 19th century (minus the pre-marital sex), but that may just be the cover art on my edition. (The image on the cover of my edition is here: http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=22913)(And I really hope to find out what the pelican is doing wearing a saddle pretty soon!)


Characters

Not to sound like a broken record, but so far I've found the characters delightful as well. For all Smoky's anonymity (and the description of how falling instantly in love and being fallen in love with in return "was as though she stirred him with cornstarch" was another of my favorites) he was instantly identifiable to me, and I suspect already that he will stay with me for some time. George Mouse made me giggle ("Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club" anyone?) and Daily Alice, despite having only a single scene to Smoky's twelve as POV character, already seems like the sort of female lead I rarely find coming from a man's pen/typewriter. Even Smoky's father seems real to me, his "private solidity" and his leatherbound classics and his chancery hand.

Miscellany

It made me smile to see Sam Walter Foss' poem "The House by the Side of the Road" on Margaret Juniper's sampler. . . and I wonder if 1927 is a date I should remember as a result?

Date Posted: 1/16/2010 12:21 AM ET
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I know the book was published in 1981, but it certainly doesn't feel like the 80s; it feels, if anything, more like the 20s or even the late 19th century (minus the pre-marital sex), but that may just be the cover art on my edition.

Definitely your cover art.  In my cover art, he's wearing blue jeans, a button down shirt, and a really cheesy moustache.  I think it's set in th either the late 60's or early 70's.  As near as I could tell, Smoky's job is to proofread a computer printout of a phone book.  Hard to do that in the 20's. 

As far as setting... It's a costal city on an island.  New York City immediately popped into mind, but, like you mentioned, it doesn't really FEEL like New York.  Plus, you can't walk out of there in one day, even back in the 80's.  But... according to the short biography in the back, Crowley lived in NYC when he started writing this in the late 60's.  Maybe it was different then? I got the idea of it being confined in area, but with towering buildings with lots of people around.   I think he's being deliberately vauge though.

the description of how falling instantly in love and being fallen in love with in return "was as though she stirred him with cornstarch" was another of my favorites

I liked this line too, but it made me rather sad.  It seems to me that Crowley's equating anonymity with not being cared about -- by anyone, including family/friends.  For instance, there was a line in there about how when Smoky's mother left, his father faded further into anonymity except when teaching Smoky.  So... if he feels the most anonymous at his brother's/sister's homes and feels that his friendship with George Mouse gave him the appearance of solidity while underneath he was still anonomous, that leaves a pretty bleak impression of his life up until he meets Daily Alice.

I'm liking it so far.  It's sort of soft and dreamlike -- which, I think, is what causes some of the confusion as to exactly where and when it's set. 

Date Posted: 1/16/2010 12:26 AM ET
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So how do we set this thing in time? Smoky is walking, quite a ways. I don't remember hm encountering vehicle traffic, though I may be wrong. I am working strictly from memory. Phoenix is also striving to set it in time. Did Crowley set this outside of time on pupose? Why would he do such a thing?

I am, almost from page one, wondering if any of these are real events occurring in a contemporary earth. George Mouse! Whoever heard of such a name. Is this a man or a mouse? Iam already wondering ift his an allegory? If so, of what? Is this some sort of parable? If so, what is the point/message?

Am I the only one who is puzzled by what is going on at this point?

Date Posted: 1/16/2010 12:59 AM ET
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I feel like I'm following what's going on in terms of plot, but I am definitely a bit at sea with the allegory. (Yes, I do think it's at least a bit allegorical. . . it has to be with those names! That's why I was wondering what "Daily Alice" is going to come to mean. . .)

 

He does encounter vehicle traffic, and he stops at a bus stop to look at his map. If I had to guess I would have guessed that it was in the 60s sometime (the drug reference and the description of the computer he's working with do leave that impression) it was just that the feel was so much more pastoral that I associate with any part of the latter half of the 20th century. But I didn't catch that he was on an island. . . I was looking so hard for a metaphor in that passage that I overlooked that detail! But if he's on an island, especially the island of Manhatten, which does seem probably, where on Earth is Edgewood? I've never visited New York City, but my impression was that the entire island of Manhatten was concrete and steel except for Central Park. . .

 

I didn't find myself equating anonymity with being unloved. . . I was getting the sense that anonymity was simply a genetic trait in the Barnable family. . . the Barnables were all the sorts of people that you just never noticed, that would be liable to fall through the cracks. . . but then maybe they should have been the Mouses? The sort of people that aren't entirely in our world, which is maybe why Smoky can enter Edgewood and Daily Alice's world. . . but I can definitely see your interpretation too, Melanti. And Crowley does even say "It had not been, until he met Daily Alice Drinkwater in the library of the Mouse townhouse, a life particularly charged with happiness."

Date Posted: 1/16/2010 1:04 AM ET
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It does mention traffic, both in the city and while walking.  When he's looking at the map, he's deliberately staying away from a double lane road (I'm assuming an expressway), and he compares the road map to being a circulatory system of veins, etc, and he picks the capillaries, ie, the smallest roads.  Later, right before he reaches the house, it does talk about oncomming traffic sounding louder and quieter as it goes over hills then surprising him as it suddenly roars by.

To add -- since I didn't see Phoenix's post until too late -- I do think they're named right.  Not sure about Mouse though, but I do agree with Smoky.  Smoke is insubstantial, fluid, drifting.



Last Edited on: 1/16/10 1:12 AM ET - Total times edited: 1
Subject: Reflections on Ch. 2 and Ch. 3
Date Posted: 1/19/2010 2:31 AM ET
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Still very much enjoying this read, and here is what stood out for me in chapters 2 and 3:

 

My cover art

I found the scene depicted on the cover of my edition! On first read I am tempted to think the scene will have weight later on, so I'll mention it here. My cover is the picture Smoky finds when he's in the library waiting to speak with Daily Alice's father, the picture showing John Drinkwater and Violet Bramble. (Although, in the text they're accompanied by a sort of gnome or fairy, and in the cover art it's a pelican with a saddle. Go figure.) The word "elf" after Violet Bramble's name got my antenna quivering, but I don't know what else to do with the scene yet.

 

Descriptions

I was a little annoyed at the descriptions of Daily Alice and Sophie in Ch. 2 -- I get it, fantasy writers and readers love long flowing tresses of gold. But just as I was starting to write off that aspect of Crowley's story, he introduced Violet in Ch. 3 with her black unibrow and I forgave him. :) But I do wonder if the descriptions of the female characters are going to mean anything in the story, or if they're just window-dressing. . .

 

Edgewood

Oh, my, the idea of Edgewood simply fires my imagination! The houses folded into houses. . . the prophecy Mrs. Underhill gave Violet ("You will live in many houses. You will wander, and live in many houses.") that Violet found so bleak and then discovered to be delightful. . . but John Drinkwater's motives in building such a house worry me. I found this passage fraught with portent:

Hands on the walls and going slowly, as though she were blind (but in fact only marveling), Violet Bramble stepped into the pumpkin-shell John Drinkwater had made to keep her in, which he had first transformed into a golden coach for her delight.

 

John Drinkwater

In fact, John Drinkwater worried me later on, too, in the meditation on his reaction to weather. ". . . in the spring he was desperately impatient, rageful when he found heaps of winter still piled in the corners of April." (That's a metaphor I loved, btw.) And his impotent rage at being unable to follow Violet into fairyland, his desperate attempts to read magic into everything she said all seemed to betoken tragedy in the offing. Their story feels like one of those fairy tales gone wrong, where a human is given a gift from fairyland but isn't content with its limitations, and so breaks the gift in the process of reaching for more.

 

The Tale

I don't know if I'm making up that tragedy because I'm reading the book so closely; that is entirely possible. But what I do know for sure this book is about (because of the judicious use of capitalization) is the Tale, and so I have to believe Mrs. Underhill is going to end up figuring fairly largely at some point. I particularly loved Violet asking "Does it have a happy ending?"; liked even more that "these weren't questions, but exchanges, as though she and Mrs. Underhill passed back and forth, with compliments, the same gift: each time expressing surprise and gratitude." Clearly the tale extends to Smoky and Daily Alice's time; judging from the family tree it continues to extend another generation beyond that (and boy am I glad there's that family tree in the front!) so I don't know that I could say at all what the Tale might be about yet -- but I suspect that the perils of human interaction with fairy will play a role.

Subject: Reflections on Chapters 4 & 5 (The Conlusion of Part 1: Edgewood)
Date Posted: 1/24/2010 1:03 PM ET
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The fact that I'm reading this novel at half my usual pace is not an indication that I'm not enjoying it. . . My thoughts this time are more items that caught my interest than meditations on themes.


The Wedding

-What on earth does ". . . but that was a Mouse wedding after all" mean? It made me giggle, but are we to infer that the Mouses are particularly licentious, or at least that they care less than most about observing the proper social forms?

-I really enjoyed the dip into Sophie's perspective. . . I hope more is done with her, because in the few pages she had she was much realer to me than most of the other characters. But perhaps that's just because she felt the strongest emotions of the entire book so far!

-I have no idea what the gifts Smoky was given mean, but I'm sure they're going to reappear: the snake of gold necklace, the red hat with an owl's feather, and the carpetbag (to hold Daily Alice's childhood and Smoky's doubt and plenty of other things -- no wonder it was so heavy!). But did Smoky forget what happened when he got separated from Alice because Mr. Woods told him to, or because he wanted to, because he still can't believe? And did Alice know what was happening to Sophie? Did Cloud see it in her cards, or did she only see Auberon's death?

 

Auberon

Ooooo, so much caught my eye about Auberon, and most of it rather dark!

-"Why was it that within [Auberon's house] Smoky felt a troubling of the sunlight?" Is it because of Auberon's um, dark past? His imminent death? Some other (maybe malignant) force associated with him?

-What happened to Timmie Willie? Did she die, off in the City, separated from the magic that is Edgewood? Or did she maybe renounce it, and that's why she diverged from the rest?

-Auberon's dying thoughts are some of the most poignant I think I have ever read: "[A fairy] would say: 'Yes, you knew us. Yes, you alone came close to the whole secret. Without you, none of the others could have come near us. Without your blindness, they couldn't have seen us; without your loneliness, they couldn't have loved each other, or engendered their young. Without your disbelief, they couldn't have believed. I know it's hard for you to think the world could work in this strange way, but there it is.'" Breaks my heart! As does his perpetual outsiderness, but I'm going to get to that in a little bit.

-But the biggie, of course, is Creepy Alert! Is that what he meant when he said he was almost a virgin? And are we, the readers, supposed to be disgusted like Smoky or accept Alice's assertion that it was about the freedom, not the sexuality? Accept that there are no psychological scars?

 

Gender

I'm beginning to be. . . concerned. . . at the way gender roles are shaping up. Why is it that all the women are the ones in touch with the magic, and all the men stuck outside? John Drinkwater, forever railing at his inability to follow Violet; Smoky and his doubt, preventing him from accepting Alice's gift of her childhood, and Auberon, trying so hard to follow where the little children led him. Of course, John Drinkwater and Smoky married into it, but if the magic was following Violet's line then Auberon should have as good a shot as Nora and Timmie Willie did. We still haven't met August (why is he lost?), but clearly he doesn't joyously interact with the magic either. And the reason that makes me concerned is that it always raises red flags in my mind when women are being set apart as different from men -- even when it appears to be a positive difference, as in this case. Because there is always the flip side: their connection to magic seems to indicate a greater separation from the "real" world of City things like science (none of the women can use Auberon's camera properly, for instance). It just gets my feminist hackles up a bit.

 

Miscellany

-There's that "The further in you go, the bigger it gets" again! But then, the novel is called Little, Big. . .

-The Tale doesn't seem a very happy one so far, given Grandfather Trout's role in it. . . assuming his dreams are correct, and he is a transformed human consigned to life as a fish for no reason he is aware of, simply that the Tale needed someone to be. . . and why this reappearance of August again? What role does that month (or time of year) play in this Tale?

-"Anonymous, [Smoky] had been as well everything as nothing; now he would grow qualities, a character, likes and dislikes. . . he did feel a certain nostalgia for his vanished anonymity, for the infinity of possibilities it contained. . ." Oh my, yet another poignant bit! Is nothing in this Tale good, plain and simple? Must it all have hidden costs? Well yes, I suppose it must. . .

-I'm sure the dreams everyone has at the end of the section mean something too, so I'm marking that page as well, but I have no guesses as of yet: Daily Alice dreaming of an oak tree and a thorn embracing; Sophie dreaming that a crack in her elbow was letting in a cold wind to blow on her heart; Dr. Drinkwater dreaming of typing 'There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.'; and Mother baking sheet after sheet of brown Years. . .

Date Posted: 1/24/2010 8:07 PM ET
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What is Grandfather Trout?  Or who. I don't know. Just one of so many "characters" that cause me, for one, to always be perplexed over the nature of this "Tale" Is the whole thing just a "Fairy Tale?" I am still not sure. If so, what is it all supposed to say?

Auberon; eventually more than one of them. Watch them close. You have good instincts about these guys PhoenixFalls.

Date Posted: 1/24/2010 8:45 PM ET
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Grandfather Trout was the fish trapped in the pool in Edgewood that brings "their" messages to Daily Alice at the end of chapter 1; the novel slips into his perspective in chapter 4 to show his dreams, which I mentioned, of maybe once having been a man, trapped in the pool and the body of a fish to service the needs of the Tale, and so deeply enmeshed in the magic that he couldn't remember himself waking. . . I have no idea who "they" are yet, and the Tale is still rather formless. :)

Date Posted: 1/24/2010 10:27 PM ET
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I have read this, remember. I am just posing what seem to me very interesting and important matters to study/observe/discuss. Anytime you think I am counterproductive, just say so and I will cheerfully disappear.

Date Posted: 1/24/2010 11:03 PM ET
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Oh, I see. No, I just thought maybe Grandfather Trout didn't get much screen time (page time?) and you read the book long enough ago that you didn't remember him. I thought your question was a factual one, not one designed for discussion. :) As to the who Grandfather Trout is if I assume his dream was correct and he used to be human. . . I do have to wonder about "poor, lost August" and the fact that in his dream Grandfather Trout was transformed "on a certain night in August". . .


Besides, you can't disappear. . . Melanti already seems to have disappeared, so if you left I'd be left with no one to talk to! ;)

Date Posted: 2/1/2010 12:58 AM ET
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Sorry, everyone.
Real life interfered.  I hate when that happens.

Chapter 2-3 (Somehow I didn't see the thread when it updated on the 19th)

I definitely like the house.  Is it bad when you covet fictional properties? I didn't really get all that much bad portent from it though.  Maybe that's because I'm associating Violet with more of a fairy godmother type figure than I am of Cinderella.  Cinderella can't do anything about her coach turning back into a pumpkin.  A fairy godmother presumably wouldn't have any issues.  Granted, Violet is more the subject of a tale than someone that helps it along, but there's a feyness about her that makes me think she'd be ok in a pumpkin.

I liked the "heaps of winter still piled into the corners of April" too.  That phrase is probably going to stick with me a long time.

John Drinkwater worries me a bit too.  We haven't seen him a whole lot, but between the odd house, his odd behavior with Violet, and the rages at the weather, I wonder if he's fully sane.

PheonixFalls, does your book have a family tree in the front?  I don't want to spoil things, if not.

Chapter 4-5

Auberon's photographs remind me of the Cottingley fairy photographs.  Those were hoaxes, of course, but spirit photography in general was really big around that time.  

There's definitely something going on with light in the Summer House.  But I'm not sure if it's necessarily foreshadowing death or if it's part of Auberon's personality.  I think there's a good argument to be made either way.  Of course, it could also have something to do with the light/photography connection, especially with that description of the photo he took of Smoky.


One of the things that really made me wonder was all the physical names.  Violet, Smoky, Ms. Cloud, Mouse, Storm, Meadows, Dale.  There were lots more in the wedding/funeral scenes.  It makes me wonder if that's all random, of if there's a purpose to it.

As far as the gender rolls go, it gets my hackles up a bit, but not horribly, considering when it was written.  I'd have a lot more of a problem with it if it was written today, but it was nearly 40 years ago.  Plus, the association of the ability to see fairies with the unibrow gives me hope that we will meet people where that gender roll is reversed.

As far as Trout goes... I found it curious that they never really mentioned John Drinkwater again after the seasons thing.  Unless I missed something, they talk about Violet growing old in the house but never talk about John.  Plus, August has mysteriously disappeared. 

Since Grandfather Trout used to be human, it makes me wonder if he's one of the two?  Either would be able to use the Grandfather title with Alice.

Matt C. (mattc) - ,
Date Posted: 2/3/2010 9:48 AM ET
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I started the book this week...it's going kind of slow, but I am through the first three chapters.  I have been trying to avoid reading the posts about later stuff, but I know what a couple of you said about it feeling like it takes place in the distant past, even though the context makes it clear it's set in the present day.  It even mentions computers and such, but the walking "quest" of Smokey to get married, and the old feel of the strange Drinkwater house and even the old (not new) wedding suit seem to be intentionally giving the impression of being apart in many ways.  It reminds me of A Midsummer Night's Dream...once outside the city, the realm of fantasy takes over. 

Date Posted: 2/3/2010 11:32 AM ET
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The hard part --- and it won't get any easier --- is figuring out what is of a "real" world, one with no supernatural aspects, and what is of a world inhabited by fairys of various sorts and figures who have maybe moved from one world to the other. And what we, as readers, are supposed to make of it. To me, Grandfather Trout seems to sit there like some sort of ultimate source of wisdom. He knows all because he has seen all. Ever so often he makes enigmatic hints, advice, warnings about the future.

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