Tag Archive: Cannonball Read


If my review title makes you want to howl and scream with the unparalleled, uncompromising rage of a true English-language pedant, then you are going to love this book. Hard.

The full title is Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling, but reading it is a breeze. It is a book for the layperson, so even if you haven’t quite nailed that dissertation defense, you’ll be fine. I first became familiar with David Crystal several years ago when I read his A Little Book of Language. I’ll go ahead and credit that one with my ongoing (and increasingly professional) love affair with linguistics. This book is similarly charming, and far more loaded. If you tend toward descriptivism, Dr. Crystal is going to do his damnedest to shut you down. This is an old man, and he often sounds it, but the depths of his enthusiasm and knowledge are infectious and he turns what would be trivia in the hands of a less invested writer into an engrossing, millennium-spanning saga of the character and personality of our favorite linguistic streetwalker: English.

Crystal’s central thesis seems to be two-fold: that there is a method to the madness of English orthography and that we can and should do a far better job equipping ourselves and our children to manage it. And manageable it is! But madness with a method is still madness and tracing that winding road from Anglo-Saxon to Shakespeare to spelling bees to tweets is fascinating from beginning to end.

It is a beautiful history, told by a man bewildered with love, and appended with two concerned, pragmatic chapters on how to help other people love it better.  “The story of the English writing system is so intriguing, and the histories behind individual words so fascinating, that anyone who dares to treat spelling as an adventure will find the journey rewarding,” he says. And he’s right. So go on an adventure; I dare you.

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First of all, this is a sequel. If you haven’t read the preceding novel A Wizard of Earthsea, then go do that right now. It’s not long. I’ll wait…

It’s wonderful, right? I remember how the prose grabbed me when I first read it, and it still grabs me that same way. It’s like The Gunslinger in that way; it feels truly, effortlessly ethereal. The text exists outside of time, as do all great fairy tales. And that’s the one problem with the sequel. Much like The Drawing of the Three (a great book in its own right), The Tombs of Atuan fails to perfectly maintain the style of A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s absolutely the same world and the characterization and world-building remains consistently excellent, but that rhythmic, trickling, watery prose has given way to an equally stark but much more traditional novelistic style. It’s a weak criticism, to be sure. Styles change and I’m afraid that that sort of tonal resonance may be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for an author. It’s been so with King, and it may prove to be so for LeGuin.

Luckily, as I alluded to above, the book itself remains solid and even innovative. Certain stylistic flourishes I expected never materialized, but the way LeGuin wove the story was still magical. It’s a subtler sort of genre inversion she works than that of Miéville. Miéville plunges you headlong into a world that is just as different tonally and superficially as it is under the hood. LeGuin’s creativity is much more human, much more classic. She doesn’t build Earthsea from the ground up at the start and you don’t realize how distinct it is from the Tolkien master style until you find yourself in a hole in the world with her as she creates and fills it in in front of you, and I have to imagine that’s how storytelling has worked from the beginning.

The island of Atuan was one such hole, and so was the larger role of women in the world. The edition I read has an afterword by the author herself, and she explains the cultural context in which she wrote The Tombs of Atuan, one in which female characters lacked power and agency. We’ve come a long way in giving female protagonists power; we have warriors and sorceresses and witches and goddesses of unfathomable destructive power, (almost) every bit as potent as the boys, but modern authors still struggle to give their creations agency.

And that may be the most impressive thing about the book: that LeGuin does not simply imbue the girl Arha with agency from the beginning, but allows her to self-actualize against a backdrop of orthodox masculinity. Ged is a player in the story of Arha’s coming into her own, and it enriches his own ongoing story as a supporting character in this sequel.

The Tombs of Atuan is almost exactly the sort of superficially evocative, wonderful read that you’re already expecting, but with the lights off, in the deep, labyrinthine catacombs that undergird it, there is something altogether different and important happening. There are more holes in Earthsea to be filled in subsequent books, but the complicated, overdue pubescence she forces onto genre convention with this book may prove to be Earthsea’s most important, impressive legacy.

“When you eat illusions you end up hungrier than before,” expounds Ged at one point in the story. “It’s about as nourishing as eating your own words.” An insight, yet LeGuin’s words make me feel fully fed.


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There is a very deliberate sort of chaos in Perdido Street Station. Everything about it is designed to force square pegs into the rounder, well-worn holes of our expectations for fantasy and horror. Its pages are occupied by fantastical races, but their separation from humanity is stark and marked. There are no beautiful elves or noble dwarves found in New Crobuzon, but there are frog-like vodyanoi and beetle-headed khepri and culturally alien bird-folk and inconveniently spiny cactus people and…and…and…

I’m not going to lie; I came into this book with high expectations. After a weirdly long period of ignorance before finally discovering the work of China Miéville (thanks in no small part to CBR6), I began reading feeling very let down. The first several chapters failed to grab me. I couldn’t tell if the plot was a slow burn or if the whole story was simply the increasingly cynical, nihilistic, and distasteful state of the crumbling wash of slums and misery that is its setting.

But once things start happening they don’t stop and the sheer intentionality of everything he’s writing becomes increasingly clear. He’s a man making a lot of points and doing it in a fantastically creative setting. What initially seemed an effort to shove as much lamentable grotesquerie at the reader as possible is suddenly revealed to be a stunningly ambitious work of fantasy world-building and an uncomfortably acute reflection of the failings of our own world. Don’t get me wrong, the continually deepening sense of worseness toes very vigorously at the line between affecting and absurdist at times, but it balances out favorably overall.

Fully acknowledging that it becomes occasionally repetitive, the writing displayed here is simply electric. It’s like Lovecraft in that, swapping “eldritch” for “thaumaturgic,” etc., etc. But all is forgiven when some new and alien perspective is demonstrated, when Miéville weaves words into scenes that make your imagination strain against its creaking confines in a struggle to visualize exactly the controlled chaos being laid out on the page. The agonizing misstep that is the extended monologue in Chapter 38 is easily forgiven because this same book gives us the Weaver, an achievement in alien thinking and characterization that you have to read to believe. Any page the Weaver occupies is an absolute joy.

I think I said it best (and most succinctly) in a text I sent to a friend encouraging him to read Perdido Street Station: “It reads like a D&D playing, decidedly less xenophobic Lovecraft had a baby with a political scientist.”

“That is indeed weird,” he responded.

It really is. And it’s so, so good.


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Cannonball Read 7 is upon us and the last time I tried to participate I failed miserably.  Which is weird, cause I read a pretty solid number of books that year…

So, let’s give it another go, shall we?  For AlabamaPink and for literacy and for the spirit of flipping cancer the bird!