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Or What You Will Hardcover – 13 September 2020
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- Publisher : Tor Books (13 September 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1250308992
- ISBN-13 : 978-1250308993
- Dimensions : 14.38 x 2.92 x 21.57 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 146,795 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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This is my second book by this author, the first being "My Real Children". Which I didn't get. But it was well-written and I didn't hate it. The story of this book was more understandable to me. It's helpful if you have a broad understanding of Shakespeare's plays (The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and Midsummer's Night Dream). The author's description of Florence, Italy demonstrates her love for that city. The interior dialogue with Sylvia's unnamed muse as she writes her book (very Shakespearean, a "play within the play") was very well done. At least I got it. A very interesting theme - immortality. I enjoyed this book.
The idea inside the writer's head is a narrator, trying to save the writer, trying to bring the writer into immortality. At the same time, the writer is writing a story in a fantasy world which mixes Florence, Shakespeare, and magic. It's a love letter to Florence and especially poignant reading it during Covid - you can't help wondering what has happened to the people and places mentioned. You will definitely want to go to Florence after reading this book.
I'm gonna make a wild guess that your answer is "Yes, I have heard all those things." In fact, if you're a person who reads a lot, you've read them over and over, with astonishing prolixity, from multiple books.
So, here's my summary of Or What You Will: "Florence is a beautiful city, and Italian food is great." There. You're done. You don't need to read the book. OK, I will admit I'm being a little unfair. But only a little. There is actually a thin little plot woven through the Florence- and Italo-philia. That's why I'm giving it two stars instead of one. It's not a bad plot, although it really was done better in the Inkheart trilogy.
So, slightly better summary, but with no spoilers. The story takes place in the mind of Sylvia Katherine Harrison, a fantasy author d'un certain âge. When I say it takes place in her mind, I don't mean that it is told from her point of view -- in fact, it is not. It is told in the first person by a nameless character whom I will just call the narrator, who lives in Sylvia's mind. He (and he is, in fact, male) has been with her for many years and has been many things in her life and in her books. He calls Sylvia's mind the Bone Cave, meaning the inside of her skull. Sylvia is in Florence as this story takes place. She is writing a new novel, a novel of Thalia, Illyria. Thalia is a city in which some of her prior fantasy novels have been set. Thalia is intentionally based on Florence, and resembles it in most details. Thalia is the capital of the duchy of Illyria, which also stands in for the name of the world in which these fantasy stories take place and for Italy.
The book begins with an extensive paean to the beauty and glory of Florence. Chapters and chapters of overheated prose. And at that she had already lost me. Florence is a beautiful city. Few people would dispute it, certainly not me. But encanting over and over "Florence is beautiful" is sort of like extending your pinky when drinking tea: it's what unrefined people think refinement looks like. In fact, it is vulgar and common.
Look, I spent 31 years of my life studying a 1 millimeter long worm called C elegans. C elegans is a lovely, elegant, intricate little mechanism of extraordinary beauty. Far more of my personal experience of beauty has come from the worm than from Florence. Now, if you are saying to yourself, "Is this person seriously implying that a worm can be compared to Florence?" the answer is no. They are such very different things, and their beauty is so different in nature, that there is no sensible way to ask "Which is more beautiful?" By the same token, Florence cannot be compared to the worm. Nor can either be compared to Noether's Theorem, an extraordinary theorem in mathematical physics.
If you think that Florence is beautiful, but cannot imagine that a worm or a mathematical theorem can possibly produce an equal or greater experience of beauty, well, then -- you are more narrow-minded aesthetically than me, and you have nothing to teach me about the nature of beauty.
Now, I hear some of you objecting, "But the beauty of Florence is so manifold. It cannot be exhausted by one book, or half a dozen. Florence could fill whole encyclopedias -- whole libraries." Well, you are definitely right about that. I know it, because -- this is the nub of my complaint -- it's been done.
My objection to Sylvia's transports of delight over Italian food is similar in nature, if less intense. If you have Italian friends, you've probably heard them go on and on (and on and on) about how wonderful Italian food is. Food is an intensely personal thing. There is no absolute sense in which Italian food is better than, say, Indian or Japanese or even, dare I say it, American food. In fact, I found myself thinking as I read Sylvia's comments on Italian food that the Jimmy Buffett song "Cheeseburger in Paradise" is far more insightful culinary commentary than anything Sylvia has to offer. At least I am confident that Buffett was offering his own original insights, saying things I had heard nowhere else, not repeating the words of thousands of Italian tourist brochures.
The artificial story includes echoes of Shakespeare's Tempest and Twelfth Night. The account by the unnamed entity is intriguing and insightful, reflecting on the nature of the creative process in unique ways.
Some of my favorite passages:
"Nobody will make you do anything but what you are doing already, reading and making the story live in your mind." p. 22 [I wonder: How does a story come alive in the reader's mind? What must be in that mind to begin with? And how does the author activate it?]
"the way we look at history is very strange, the places we draw lines, the things we remember and forget and take for granted, the series of improbabilities that become inevitabilities only after they have happened." p. 42
"... at that moment I slip into him, filling him up in one quicksilver gulp, and he catches fire, moves from a placeholder much less interesting than the too-tall young lady by his side to become a person with his own thoughts, his own agenda, my grim and quick of the brow. Don't ask how I perform this trick of consciousness. I've been doing it for so long now that it seems quite natural. I do not slip on Dolly like shrugging on a suit of clothes, I become part of him like a soul entering a body. I enter into him, and he becomes part of me." p. 49
"You always say that you don't have to describe everything, you have to evoke. You don't have to mention every course, you just have to say the air is heavy with garlic and rosemary with a faint edge of something burned." p. 158
"Characters do that, they grab on to some tiny thing you didn't at al intend in that way and go haring off with it in the wrong direction. I don't mind. It's better than having to make everything up all the time, which is a real slog." p. 215
"I'd want the stars to be destinations, not destiny." p. 287