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Teaching Lev Grossman's The Magicians

The MagiciansLast spring in an honors seminar on modern fantasy literature, I had the opportunity to teach Lev Grossman's The Magicians.  Overall, it was a very positive experience, with many of my students later telling me how they had recommended the novel to others.  We spent three 75-minutes class periods on the novel, and while I certainly felt like we could have continued the discussion even further, this amount of time was enough to cover the main issues at stake in the novel. 

Instead of providing a detailed account of everything that we did during those three days of class, I will focus on one of my main strategies for teaching the novel, as well as one of the major challenges that presented itself during our discussions. [note: the rest of this article will contain potential spoilers]  I then hope that others who have taught this novel will post their own experiences in the comments!

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The Brilliance of Lev Grossman's The Magicians: The World Outside the Novel

The MagiciansFor those of you who haven't already, read Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians.  It's wonderful.  It's a novel that is both a familiar coming-of-age story, as well as a novel that plays with the comfortable conventions of fantasy literature.   And in many cases, it does more than play--as Elizabeth Simons wrote for us a few months ago, it challenges the reader in ways that are distinctly un-comfortable, but that open up new and exciting ways for thinking about fantasy literature.

So, in other words, read this novel.  Read it this weekend.  Why this weekend?  Because that will give you enough time to enjoy the whole thing before the sequel--The Magician King--is released on Tuesday.

And as much as I'm excited about finding out what happens next to Quentin Coldwater and his friends, the thing about The Magician King that I think I'm most looking forward to is seeing the ways in which it continues what I consider to be the most brilliant part of the first novel--the blurring of the line between the world of the novel and our real world.

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Reading The Sword of Shannara: Chapters 21-25

The Sword of ShannaraJen Miller and Phil Ilten have been reading The Sword of Shannara together and sharing their thoughts by writing back and forth.  Find earlier installments of our discussion here; we'd encourage you to add to our conversation in the comments!


Dear Phil--

Hey, we have a girl! Last time I was just complaining about the complete dearth of female characters, and now we have one. Sure, she’s a princess who needed to be rescued, but she has a name and says things, so we’re moving in the right direction, right? I am interested to learn how exactly Palance came to think that Balinor stole her from him, since that seems like it will do a lot to begin to bring some of the narrative threads developed in this section together into one glorious climax.

Speaking of multiple narrative threads: in our last set of letters, you had commented about how you got more interested in the story during those chapters--that happened for me during these chapters. One big reason was that I really enjoyed the multiple storylines that were developed here, and I agree that this has helped a lot to move the novel away from Tolkien’s influence and into a creative space of its own.

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Midweek Fiction: Nnedi Okorafor, "The Book of Phoenix: Excerpted From the Great Book"

Nnedi Okorafor was among the featured authors at the Fantasy Matters conference in 2007. Her fiction has won a number of major awards, including the Wole Soyinka Prize, the CBS Parallax Award, and the Macmillan Prize for Africa. Reading Okorafor's work always make me feel as if my imagination has been expanded.

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The Ever Fantastic Kafka

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other StoriesIn a letter to a friend, Kafka once wrote: “I believe that we should only read those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it? What we need are books that affect us like some really grievous misfortune, like the death of one whom we loved more than ourselves, as if we were banished to distant forests, away from everybody, like a suicide; a book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us” (qtd. in Koelb 72).

This quote is but one reason that I love teaching Kafka—no other author confounds, frustrates, and dazzles my students the way he does, whether it is with a tattoo machine that takes on a life of its own or a bucket that one can fly in desperate times, or a salesman that suddenly wakes up one day a “monstrous vermin.” And hidden within these fantastic tales are deeper issues about justice, faith, power dynamics, use value, and yes, even about writing itself. Take the tortuous machine in In the Penal Colony, which is rendered with such meticulous description while still defying reality. My students know the machine looks like, sort of. Same with the giant bug poor Gregor Samsa finds himself morphed into—my students have a hazy idea of what it looks like, but get them to draw it, and they find themselves at a loss (some just go for a standard cockroach to make it easy). This, to me, is the fantastic at its most powerful—it feels real on some level that we cannot rationalize.

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