Friday, December 4, 2009

My Love Affair with THE ICE QUEEN

Read sometimes for the story....  Don't be like the book-snobs who won't do that.  Read sometimes for the words--the language.  Don't be like the play-it-safers that won't do that.  But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.  --Stephen King, Hearts in Atlantis
This quote from Stephen King makes my breath stop--it does more than just take it away, it makes it impossible for me to breathe while my body processes the words.  I am the type of reader that gets carried away with books and their words and their stories.  When I read a good book, I forget that there is a world outside, and I crawl inside the book and live there until I'm finished with it.  I have posted before about how my favorite books are those that have both content and style; I take King's advice and treasure those books.  A while ago, a colleague of mine recommended that I read The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman, and I started reading it a few weeks ago.  The book is so beautiful that I find I'm picking it up in spurts and enjoying it slowly, much like I would a gourmet dessert that I want to make last as long as possible.  I read a few pages, type out all the memorable quotes I encountered in those pages, and then reflect.  I can't push myself to go any faster because I don't want the book to be over too soon.  It's 'joie de lire' at its best.

The book is about a woman who is struck by lightning and survives; her story really begins after the lightning strike, which allows her to open herself up to another person--a fellow lightning strike survivor.  The story is intriguing because it revolves around a woman whose life is mundane at best, yet Hoffman crafts it with such love that I find myself drawn to this woman's story.  The book is so well written, that I find myself wanting to know what it feels like to be struck by lightning so that I can better commiserate with the main character.  I think that's one of the highest recommendations I can give a book--it makes me want to be struck by lightning, and not in a bad way.  The book has rendered me speechless, so instead of focusing on my own musings, I'm going to let Hoffman's words speak for themselves.

Hoffman's descriptions of characters rarely rely on physical traits but rather on personality quirks and beliefs and actions.  One such instance of character description through thought is the following paragraph, which is told from the main character's viewpoint:

I didn't believe that people got what they deserved.  I didn't believe in a rational, benevolent world that could be ordered to suit us, an existence presumed to fit snugly into an invented logic.  I had no faith in pie charts or diagrams of humanity wherein the wicked were divided from the good and the forever after was in direct opposition to the here and now.
As a person who doesn't regularly focus on outward appearances as the definition of people, I appreciate her attention to providing truer descriptions.  Later on in the book, she describes a man as beautiful, but never once stops to justify that description physically but instead focuses on how he is beautiful because of his energy--his raw magnetism.

The main character is a librarian, so Hoffman also provides descriptions of books, reading habits, and libraries.  One description that got my attention is how the character defined her brother in terms of his reading choices; while she is a fan of fairy tales (Grimms' fairy tales--not Andersen's), her brother is not.

He'd always had some comment to make: Genetically impossible for men to turn into beasts.  Ridiculous to imagine that a woman could sleep for a hundred years.  Absurd to think the dead could speak in rhymes and the living could make wishes that come true.  But the logic of fairy tales was that there was no logic: bad things happened to the innocent, children were set out in the woods by their parents, fear walked hand in hand with experience, a wish spoken aloud could make it so.

I like how she boils it down to "the logic of fairy tales was that there was no logic."  This analysis provides more description of the character by showcasing her belief that life is not fair and people do not get what they deserve.  It also shows the distinction between her and her brother: her brother prefers logic while she prefers the illogical.

Hoffman's descriptions of events are also spell-binding.  In the following passage, she describes the moments just before a man (a roofer) got struck by lightning:

Halfway through his work, he heard a hissing sound, and he found himself thinking of hell and whether or not he might end up there, if such a place existed.  His fingers started to tingle.  And then he saw what he thought was the moon falling from the sky.  But the moon had a tail, and that was surely a bad sign.  It was ball lightning; it fell on the roof and rolled down toward him.  It looked like a comet headed straight for him, a blue-black thing that was as solid and real as a truck or boot or a living, breathing man.  The roofer thought he might be face-to-face with the devil himself, that fallen angel.  He thought about everything he hadn't yet done in his life.  All of a sudden owning a dog seemed like the most important thing in the world.
Hoffman is realistic in her depictions of what people think, and I love how the man's last moments before being struck go not toward his family or his life or anything of great importance but instead toward the fact that he had never owned a dog.  I tend to wonder if lives actually flash before people's eyes or if people who say that are just too afraid to admit that their thoughts zoomed in on something insignificant during what could have been the last moment of their lives.

Hoffman also poses fascinating questions through the character's thoughts:

Could you walk into fear as one person and come back as someone else entirely?
If an ice age could be triggered by trivial shifts in the earth's orbit, what might be wrought by a woman in tears?
Are people drawn to each other because of the stories they carry inside?
When I come to questions in the book, I have to stop reading and put the book down to give myself time to think about what is being asked and how I would respond.  Oftentimes, the questions will be followed by the character's thoughts on the issue, and I like to work out how I feel about the questions before I find out how the character answers them.  It's a great thinking practice, and the book is making me more philosophical than I often am.

Happy reading and savoring your treasured books!


Jenn (Books At Midnight) said...

Ah, I remember reading this one last year. You sum it up beautifully and pull out many of the key elements of the story that had me wondering and sort of in awe at how Hoffman managed to conceive such ideas. The relationship in the book was definitely INTENSE to say the least, and I don't want to ruin the end, but, for me, it was the perfect, if not fairy-tale like, ending for such an unusual and thought-provoking book.
Anyways, I know exactly what you mean by wanting to drag the experience out, so enjoy! :)

Jessie Sams said...

Jenn, I'm glad to know other readers enjoyed the book as much as I'm enjoying it. I've spent most of the morning with the book and ended up typing two pages of notes/quotations while reading just over 30 pages. I have a feeling the book will be showing up in more posts to come... I love how in the middle of the book, Hoffman writes, "That's the danger when you come to the middle of the story. You may find out more than you ever wanted to know." I look forward to seeing how the middle morphs into the end!

Post a Comment