literary wonderlands

LITERARY WONDERLANDS [Book Thoughts]

I received this book for review consideration from the publisher, via Shelf Awareness for Readers. All opinions are my own.

Literary Wonderlands
Published by Hachette Books on November 1st 2016
ISBN: 9780316316385
Genres: Fiction, Literary Criticism, General, Books & Reading
Pages: 320
Format: ARC
Source: publisher, via Shelf Awareness for Readers

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A glorious collection that delves deep into the inception, influences, and literary and historical underpinnings of nearly 100 of our most beloved fictional realms. Literary Wonderlands is a thoroughly researched, wonderfully written, and beautifully produced book that spans two thousand years of creative endeavor. From Spenser's The Fairie Queene to Wells's The Time Machine to Murakami's 1Q84 it explores the timeless and captivating features of fiction's imagined worlds including the relevance of the writer's own life to the creation of the story, influential contemporary events and philosophies, and the meaning that can be extracted from the details of the work. Each piece includes a detailed overview of the plot and a "Dramatis Personae." Literary Wonderlands is a fascinating read for lovers of literature, fantasy, and science fiction. Laura Miller is the book's general editor. Co-founder of Salon.com, where she worked as an editor and writer for 20 years, she is currently a books and culture columnist at Slate. A journalist and a critic, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the "Last Word" column for two years. She is the author of The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia and editor of the Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.

A version of this review was published in Shelf Awareness for Readers on November 15, 2016. Shelf Awareness provided a galley of the book and paid for the review they received.

The brief essays collected in Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created survey nearly 4000 years of inventive storytelling. Under the editorial direction of Laura Miller, the work of more than 40 contributors is organized into a timeline tracing from ancient myth and legend to modern fantasy and speculative fiction.

LITERARY WONDERLANDS: An Atlas of Imagination

The chronological structure is not strictly linear, however, and the works discussed in Literary Wonderlands skew toward the relatively recent. This emphasis makes sense for the subject matter. Traditional fiction has begun incorporating genre elements more freely. Meanwhile, science fiction and fantasy are expanding into ever more specific niches. Although there was an evident effort to diversify the selections, Literary Wonderlands  skews toward Western works.  And with a few exceptions–Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide radio play–the modern fictional worlds considered here spring from conventionally “literary,” bookish origins. (The universes of the great science-fiction movie franchises don’t seem to fall under the scope of the book’s subtitle.)

All of the essays in Literary Wonderlands include a detailed synopsis of the story under consideration. Some of the pieces emphasize thematic analysis over plot discussion, but the critique is approachable rather than academic. Over 100 illustrations mix reproductions of drawings and maps from the original works with paintings and photographs inspired by them. Well-known works don’t get obvious preference over less-familiar ones, and this even-handedness is one of the book’s best qualities.

From Hell to Hogwarts, And Beyond

It’s interesting to see works discussed earlier in the book re-appear as references and influences to later stories. The literary forms represented here range from medieval poetry and drama (The Divine Comedy, The Tempest) to fiction that defined genres (The Time Machine) and broke them open (Slaughterhouse-Five). Contributors explore the worlds of characters associated with children’s literature–Alice, Peter Pan, Harry Potter–alongside the adults-only settings of Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange. And of course, Middle-Earth, Oz and Narnia get their due.

An engaging read on its own merits, Literary Wonderlands is equally valuable as a resource for further reading and as fodder for arguments over the works it includes (and leaves out). An online preview of the book is available via the publisher’s website.

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