Jun 12, 2009

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.
And so begins this peculiar and delightful story. The Duke of Coffin Castle demands that those who come for the hand of his niece perform impossible tasks, and kills them when they fail. One day, a travelling minstrel that calls himself Xingu arrives to the town near the castle, determined to try to win the princess’s hand. With the help of a mysterious being who calls himself the Golux, he begins his quest to defeat the unapologetically evil Duke.

You know how some books just make you happy, and you can't even quite explain why? The Thirteen Clocks was one of those books for me. I loved the story itself, a fairy tale but-not-quite, but it was more than that. I loved the quirkiness, the darkness, the humour. I loved that even though it could easily have become silly, it never did. I loved Marc Simont’s illustrations, and above all, I loved the language.

Thurber’s use of language in The 13 Clocks calls attention to itself, but it does so in a way that never detracts from the story—on the contrary, it adds to it. This is a book that begs to be read aloud, a book in which every word is there to be savoured. In the introduction to this edition, Neil Gaiman says:
I watch Thurber wrap his story tightly in words, while at the same time juggling fabulous words that glitter and gleam, tossing them out like a happy madman, all the time explaining and revealing and baffling with words. It is a miracle.
It really is a miracle.

Also, The 13 Clocks is a short book, and at first glance you would perhaps not think there would be much in the way of characterization. But by the end of the story, I was completely attached to the characters, especially the mysterious Golux. I don’t know how Thurber does it, but they really come alive.

I love many different kinds of books for many different reasons, but it’s only rarely that one charms me as much as The 13 Clocks did.

A few particularly great bits:
The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried.

The clocks were dead, and in the end, brooding on it, the Duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon its beard and left it lying there, bleeding hours and minutes, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating.
And this, possibly one of the best uses of alliteration ever:
From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets.
Other Opinions:
Masha

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to add your link here.)

34 comments:

  1. This sounds creepy and wonderful!

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  2. That alliteration stuff reminds me of a song I know...All My Hate by Stiffs Inc.

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  3. Great review! I have not read any of Thurber's works, but this sounds like a good one with which to start.

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  4. From the quotes you've posted, this sounds like a more accessible version of Mervyn Peake. Such beautiful language.

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  5. "His name began with X...and it still does!"

    "He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty six, and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half."

    I could just go on and on. I wrote about it (amongst others)
    Read it out loud!

    And have you read "The wonderful O" and "The White Deer?"

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  6. Sounds good, Nymeth! The title itself is enough to hook me! ;)

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  7. I've never read Thurber but if it's short and good that would be a big help to me!! Great review!!

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  8. I've never read any of James Thurber's work, but I want to after that review.

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  9. This book looks great! I really like that it has a lot aspects of a fairy tale, but it is not solely a fairy tale. I think I would also enjoy the illustrations. I am also liking that you are peppering your reviews with quotes, it really helps me to figure out if the book would be a good fit for me.

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  10. I've been wanting to read this a long time but couldn't find a copy at the library!! My most favourite children's book is Thurber's Many Moons.. :D

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  12. I am the only Golux in the world, a not a mere Device! I'm so glad you love it too - and yes, it's great to read aloud, I read it first to my husband and then to my children.

    My Puffin copy is illustrated by the cartoonist, Ronald Searle, and I can't quite imagine anyone else doing it!

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  13. Awful when you can't get it right - that should have been, "and not a mere device". Sorry.

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  14. Oh, wow. I only knew Thurber as an essayist and memorist even though I know I've read some of his short stories. (I think My Life and Hard Times is a sort of mix of autobiography and fiction.) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is also a classic. But I had no idea he wrote dark fable-esque books too. I'll have to find this somewhere. Thanks for the review!

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  15. Definitely a book I want to read. I loved this quote - 'The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried.'
    It sounds so well written and the cover is very interesting.

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  16. Sounds fantastic. When you call a book "a Miracle" I think I have to check it out! :-)

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  17. Yay! Another book I've never heard of. It sounds wonderful.

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  18. This sounds quite good. Thanks for the review.

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  19. James Thurber is a wonderful essayist and I have read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which is a wonderful story. I did not know he wrote fables or children's stories and am very intrigued. Thank you for a great review of this very gifted author.

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  20. I love the sound of this! And the look. The cover is great--I have a thing for clocks. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth.

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  21. I really like Thurber, but I haven't read this book yet.

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  22. I've read this book, but had forgotten the title. Your opening quote brought it all back. I'm so glad for this great review! Now I'll be able to find the book again.

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  23. Ooo sounds like a book I might enjoy! I will be on the look-out for it!

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  24. awww sounds lovely! I'll have to look for this one.Another one I'd never heard of that I discover thanks to you:)

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  25. Oh, you just made me ever so happy! I have this on my Dream King Challenge list (as a Neil recommended), but to perfectly honest I didn't have a clue what it was. Now I can be pretty darn confidant that I'm absolutely going to adore it.

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  26. Care: It is! But creepy in a warmth-filled sort of way. I hope this makes sense :P

    Amanda: Not familiar with it, but I do love me some alliteration.

    Molly: This was my first too, so yes, I'd say it's a good starting place :)

    Masha: Not yet (this was my first time reading Thurber), but I plan to. This book really was made to be read aloud. Thank you for your link!

    Melody: I bet reading this one aloud to your girls would be fun :D

    Staci: It took me less than two hours to read, but then I was sad because I wanted more, more, more!

    Bermudaonion: This was my first, but I'll definitely look for more :)

    Zibilee: I loved that about it too! A fairy tale but yet not quite, and I can't even say why not, except that the atmosphere is a little different. And I'm glad you like the quotes! I know not everyone likes reviews that include them, but I figure they're easy enough to skip for those who don't :P

    Claire: I'll have to look for that one!

    GeraniumCat: I didn't know there was a version with different illustrations! Now I want both :P

    Kate: I had no idea he was also an essayist! In fact, I knew nothing about him. I'll keep those titles in mind.

    Scrap Girl: That is such a good line, isn't it? And the whole book is full of them :)

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  27. Marie: And Neil Gaiman said it first, so you know it's got to be true :P

    Terri B: It was!

    Charley, I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!

    Jaimie: I will have to look for his books for adults!

    Literary Feline: If you have a thing for clocks then you're sure to enjoy this!

    Bybee: I've only read this book, and I like him already :P

    Janet: I'm glad to have helped :D

    xalwaysdreamx: I hope you do enjoy it :D

    Valentina: I hope you find it!

    Debi: Yep, that would be the reason why I picked it up too :P I didn't really know much about it either, but Neil Gaiman doesn't street us wrong. You'll love it for sure!

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  28. You are so right! Those passages you included just beg to be read out loud. It gave me the same feeling as when I am reading poetry, after awhile I notice my lips are moving without my even realizing. Awesome review - I just checked and the library has a copy! Can't wait to check it out :)

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  29. This one sounds like a *lot* of fun!

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  30. I haven't read any Thurber in years. I think you just made me want to try this one! Excellent review, Nymeth :-D

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  31. This sounds great! I have never heard of it, but I will have to check it out. Especially if Neil Gaiman recommends it. I feel like he would have great taste in books!

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  32. Spooky... And I'd be sure to read anything that Gaiman recommends. :D

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  33. oooh...this sounds just like a fairy tale, as you said. Love the title too, very cute. Thanks for the review Nymeth.

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  34. Going to be honest--too far behind to write a thoughtful comment. :P But I did want you to know that I'm putting this one on the list. And sometimes you don't need a reason to love a book. Right? Ok, well that ended up being better than "sounds great" :)

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.