Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2018

Literary Wonderlands, edited by Laura Miller

Literary Wonderlands was an impulse buy which turned out to be most enjoyable reading.  It is, as implied by the full title Literary Wonderlands, a Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, a brief exploration of notable fictional worlds, beginning with the ancient world and concluding in the computer age. Its five sections are:

  • Ancient Myth and Legend
  • Science and Romanticism
  • Golden Age of Fantasy
  • New World Order
  • The Computer Age.

Ancient Myths and Legends includes the epics you’d expect, and many of which I’ve read.  Each 2-4 page summary includes beautiful artworks illustrating scenes from the stories; books from later eras also have author photos, maps of the fictional worlds and stills from film adaptations.

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh (c1750BC)
  • The Odyssey (c.725—675 BC)
  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c.8)
  • Beowulf (c.700-1100)
  • The One Thousand and One Nights (c.700-947)
  • The Mabinogion (12th-14th century) (on my TBR, but I have read bits of it)
  • The Prose Edda (c.1220) by the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson (I have read some Norse myth but this is on my wishlist now)
  • The Divine Comedy (c.1308—21) by Dante Alighieri (on my TBR in three versions, Clive James’ s translation partly read)
  • Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory (have read bits of this, at uni when I studied Arthurian legend)
  • Orlando Furioso (c.1516/32) by Ludovico Ariosto, a rival to Arthurian romances, apparently, and inspiration for authors such as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Salman Rushdie)
  • Utopia (1516) by Thomas More
  • The Faerie Queen (1590—1609) by Edmund Spenser
  • Journey to the West (Xiyouji) (c.1592) by Wu Cheng’En (abridged by Arthur Waley, apparently as the more well-known Monkey (1942)
  • The City of the Sun (1602) by Tommasso Campanella, another of many utopias included in the book
  • Don Quixote (1605/15) by Miguel de Cervantes (see my rambling thoughts here)
  • The Tempest (1611) Shakespeare
  • A Voyage to the Moon (1657) by Cyrano de Bergerac (who I’ve never been tempted to read)
  • The Description of a New World, called The Blazing World (1666) by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and apparently an inspiration for Virginia Woolf and Siri Hustvedt.

Yes, you can see the problem.  Only one woman.  But not surprising given the era that’s covered.  Gender equity would mean the inclusion of obscure works most of us have never heard of, denying readers the pleasure of connecting with the familiar.  This is not a scholarly text.   It’s (as the blurb says) an armchair traveller’s guide to magical realms.

Exploring the familiar is what I most liked about this book.  I browsed through it first, and then went back to the beginning and read it all the way through, paying more attention to the books I’d read, and discovering aspects of them that I’d overlooked.  This was especially so in the case of childhood books like CS Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Little Prince by Antoine de Exupery, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland of course, plus J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Tove Jansson’s Moomintrolls.   May Gibbs makes an entrance with Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Yes, they could have included Patricia Wrightson’s The Nargun and the Stars or An Older Kind of Magic but who in the international audience for this book would know these Australian children’s novels or be able to source them today?  That’s the editor’s dilemma: a general readership wants to be able to source the books that are of interest.

But there was much to discover with adult books too.  An obvious case in point was Benjamin Widiss’ illuminating ideas about Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius which made me realise that there was so much more to it than I had dimly perceived in my ramblings about it.  (Many of the contributors are US and UK academics (though hey! Robert Holden is an Aussie!) but there are also (among other female contributors) reviewers such as Maureen Speller who specialises in SF and the author Lisa Tuttle who writes horror, fantasy and SF.)  I liked revisiting David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale but I was also interested to discover books by authors I barely know such as Bernardo Atxaga who wrote a novel called Obabakoak.  Opera gets a mention with Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung and so does a most interesting book called Islandia by the American Austin Tappan Wright. Definitely one for the wishlist.

The last two chapters, as you might expect, focus heavily on dystopia, fantasy and SF, and this is where women writers emerge, with authors like Ursula Le Guin and her unforgettable A Wizard of Earthsea, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and others I haven’t read such as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke.  From what I see in this book, there are quite a few books in these genres that I’ve tended not to read, that I might quite enjoy, though nothing is going to make me read Stephen King again…

Though it’s obviously designed as a gift book, I hesitate to recommend this as a present for litlovers because of the savage and humourless reviews at Goodreads.  Like anything remotely resembling a canon, this book attracts the ire of those whose cause célèbre and/or favourite books have been omitted.  So I should not have been surprised…

Editor: Laura Miller, working with 41 contributors
Title: Literary Wonderlands, a Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created
Publisher: Hardie Grant, Melbourne, 2016
ISBN: 9781743792803
Source: personal library, purchased from the Hill of Content Bookshop, $34.99

Available from Fishpond: Literary Wonderlands: A Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for this, Lisa! I immediately decided to order this book for my literary-minded 20-y-o granddaughter, as I thought it would offer her a great historical overview of world literature. I clicked the link to fishpond.com and discovered they are charging $49.05 – way beyond my means. Then I tried Booktopia. They are selling exactly the same hardback edition for only $27.40! I cannot explain this difference in price, but it seems extraordinary.

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    • Yes, it does seem extraordinary. It always pays to shop around. FP is nearly always best for NZ books because of the free postage, but sometimes (I hate to say this) the Book Depository is the cheapest of them all. Booko is good for comparing prices as well.

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  2. Hi Lisa, your review of the book makes it very appealing to me. I will certainly look out for it and make a visit to the Hill of Content Bookshop, the next time I am in the city.

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    • It’s a gorgeous bookshop:)

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  3. Inkheart is a wonderful novel and the two following it that make up the trilogy, Inkspell and Inkdeath, equally so. They did make a movie of Inkheart but it paled in comparison to the novel. If you branch out at all, I recommend these!

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    • Actually I thought I’d read Inkheart some years ago, but I didn’t record it if I did…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I actually think this sounds really interesting and a great way to get some insight into books that I may not have heard of or been inclined to read in the past.

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    • I think so too. And I like the focus on setting, I haven’t seen too many LitCrit books that focus on that.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You’re inspiring me to buy this asap – even though I’ve done this kind of reading exploration throughout my life. What about the NZ writer Jack Lasenby? I’ve relished and very much appreciated his Traveller series.

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    • Hi Carol, no I’m sorry, Lasenby isn’t in the index. But then, there are nearly 300 countries in the world and most of them aren’t represented either. LOL Maybe we should do our own antipodean version of this book!

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  6. LOOKS GOOD, CHINA

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  7. I would never let GoodReads reviews stop me recommending or vice versa anything! I know we put our reviews – for me when I remember – on GoodReads because we might as well but I never use it myself for advice because too many reviews are emotional rather than analytical. Readers swayed by those reviews are unlikely to be those who come here?

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    • BTW sounds an intriguing book … I like thinking about setting too.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You have a valid point, but it was the content of the criticism that made me hesitate. Identity politics is getting out of hand IMO when a joyous book like this gets slated because there’s not enough women in it, and yet I read enough around the web to know that some people would be outraged merely by the giving of the gift because the book doesn’t conform to a set idea of what a book should contain. So my hesitation was really to alert readers to that possibility.

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      • Ah, fair enough. If it’s a book about history of literature, as this seems to be, then the “identities” are going to be skewed reflective of the times. A little common-sense is needed eh?

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        • Well, I think so! Are we going to deny ourselves the pleasure of reading the classics because they were written by men?

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  8. Ohhhh this looks like a beautiful book! I’d be interested in the Divine Comedy chapters – I feel like so much of that setting went right over my head. And I feel like Goodreads haters are inevitable with this kind of book; had Laura Miller and the publishing team gone for a more diverse/inclusive selection, it would have meant cutting out some of the better-known classics, and then a whole other set of complainers would have been out for blood. As it is, it sounds like they’ve done their best to hit the right balance, and it sounds like a wonderful illuminating read!!

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    • Yes, that’s what I think. It’s strange, there are some really angry people at GR these days, whereas it used to be a very relaxed and friendly place.

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  9. […] Literary Wonderlands, edited by Laura Miller #BookReview […]

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