Thursday, June 23, 2011

Calling All Adults! Read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

In case I forgot: the illustrations by Ana Juan are exquisite.
Why aren’t you reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making?

Do you think you’re too old for fairy tales?

Did you give up Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz when you were ten?

If you go anywhere near the young adult section in a bookstore, are you looking
for vampires or angels or dystopian societies?

Does GWCFSHOM seem too saccharine?  Too little-girlish?  Too fanciful?  Too bizarre?

Is the title too long for your pre-Alzheimers brain to hold onto?

I don’t care about your preconceived notions, your inflexible literary preferences, or your personal limitations: Dammit!  Read this book!

Catherynne M. Valente has dreamed up a kaleidoscope world with vibrant settings, shining characters, and glorious themes – yes, themes.  You probably think this is some flimsy tale of whimsy where the author gratuitously paints with neon words and flashes fantastical images that hold no purpose other than to dazzle.  To be sure, Valente is a lush Dante Gabriel Rosetti with words, who is every bit as linguistically acrobatic as Lewis Carroll.  Yet, her story has heart; it has soul and feel-good stuff that burns off that surrealistically creepy fog that dulls Carroll’s Wonderland or Baum’s Oz.  Fairyland is treacherous and scary but it never devolves into a nightmarish freakshow.  Valente sprinkles the story with revelations about growing-up, loyalty and love, courage and fortitude, longing and loss, and even redemption, and she does it so gracefully that it takes the nasty edge off all that is unfamiliar and strange. 

Here’s what I mean – this is a beautiful passage where a soap golem sacrifices her own finger to clean the twelve year-old protagonist:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean.  You are brave enough for anything: crawling off staircases, saying your first words without fearing someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth.  But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like.  By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living.  So every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going or else you’ll never be brave again.”

Valente’s story begins when September, the heroine, is whisked away from her home in Nebraska by the Green Wind; he flies her to Fairyland on a magical leopard because she “seems an ill-tempered and irascible enough child.”  Upon her arrival, September agrees to retrieve a magical spoon, the property of a very well-dressed witch named Goodbye.  This spoon is in the hands of the evil Marquess who rules Fairyland.  On her way to fulfill this quest, September meets a Wyvern, who is half-library (I won’t try to explain), as well as a sea-djinni (like a genie) whose past and future selves can show up at any time in the present.

Before you make any obvious comparisons to Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, or Gulliver’s Travels, let me just say: “This ain’t your Granny’s Fairytale.”  Valente gives props to her predecessors of fantastical literature with references to magical wardrobes, boons of fancy shoes (not ruby slippers, but little black heels, mind you), references to winds whisking away waifs from the Midwest (Nebraska rather than Kansas), an evil queen of whom everyone is afraid (although she doesn’t scream “Off with their heads!”), and tiny customs guards who wear huge gargoyle automatons to appear more imposing than they really are (a la the wizard in Oz).

SPOILER ALERT:  Now that we’ve gotten some of the obvious similarities to other stories out of the way, here are some of Valente’s original details:  have you ever heard of beaches carpeted with treasure, entire cities made of cloth or baked goods, a girl whose hair changes colors with her moods, movie screens where the people on the film can see the audience and speak to them, half-people that mix and match with their siblings, inanimate objects that come to life after 100 years, or wild herds of velocipedes?  I could go on and on, but I think I’ve already said too much.

Today I sat at the swimming pool waiting for my kids to work out their overabundance of energy, and I finished the last chapters of the book.  A woman I didn’t know at a nearby table said, “That must have been a good book.  You were smiling the whole time you were reading it.”  If nothing else convinces you that the book will push every wholesome pleasure button in your being, that woman’s observation should.  I must’ve been grinning, not like a Cheshire cat, but like a flying Leopard.

So again, I ask, why aren’t you reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making?  I don’t know how this book is being marketed, but I do know it transcends age, gender, cultural preferences, and literary tastes.  Don’t let it languish on a Young Adult or Children’s Lit bookshelf, and don’t compare it to the fantasy tales of your youth.  It’s modern in tone, it’s universally appealing, and it’s an indulgent gift you should give yourself.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Spring Reading Thing 2011 - What Happened?

My success rate for Spring Reading thing was about fifty percent.  I'll recap my list and explain (make excuses for) why I didn't complete my challenge:

  1. Swamplandia by Karen Russell.  I had high hopes for this book because the book flap was enticing.  Although the book had a few great moments, it was a slow-paced read overall.  I suspect Russell was trying to dazzle us with her prose rather than move her story along.  It could have been a great story had the pacing been a little better.  Here's my extended review if you'd like the deets on this one.
  2. The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.  I had low expectations for Brown's novel about three sisters, a sick mother, and a Shakespeare-obsessed father because I thought it was going to be fluffy chick-lit (which I will read, but that's not what I was seeking here).  I ended up liking this story.  The characters were well-developed and showed growth.  It wasn't melodramatic (and the subject matter could have easily slipped into melodrama).  I found myself laughing during some scenes and my heart constricting in my chest in others.  Here's my extended review.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Punctuation and Grammar – An Update on My Summer Creative Writing Course

This summer, I am embarking on a self-taught creative writing course (see my post: Autodidact’s Summer Creative Writing Course).  I want to become a better writer.  I need help becoming a better writer.  While I can’t leave my kids to fly off to a formal program, nothing is stopping me from reading instructive materials and putting the advice I gather into practice.
            This week, I started with the basics: grammar – more specifically, punctuation.  I had a slow start with my self-assigned readings.  The subject matter evoked shameful memories of my undergraduate composition class where my essay, composed during the first class meeting, was chosen by my classmates as the best-written.  So why does this memory make me wince rather than glow with self-esteem?  Because my professor systematically reamed the essay to show us all that we didn’t know shit about writing.  Since then, I have never rushed to pat myself on the back – I try to avoid the embarrassment of premature congratulation.
            Once I got into Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I realized the subject wasn’t so bad.  I never bothered with Strunk and White during my university life (non-English major here – that obnoxious composition professor probably put me off the entire discipline), but The Elements of Style is great little book of writing basics.  It’s short, but eye-opening.  I now realize how moronic I must seem to my blog readers.  I am red-faced that I don’t remember as many of the guidelines of good writing as I thought I did (what was I saying earlier about hasty self-congratulation?).
           Once I absorbed Strunk and White, I moved on to Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation.  It’s a technical read, but Lukeman provides abundant examples to make his points.  In the first section Lukeman covers the three primary marks: period, comma, and semi-colon.  He also covers colons, dashes and parentheses, quotation marks, and paragraph and section breaks.  The chapter format for each point is as follows:  how to use it, the danger of overuse, how to underuse it, the danger of underuse, context, what your use of the [insert punctuation here] reveals about you, and exercises.  My use of various forms of punctuation, more often than not, revealed my amateur writer status: no surprise there.  I haven’t done the exercises yet, but they can all be applied to my work-in-progress, which I am sure will render further revelations and self-loathing.  Nevertheless, Lukeman has shown me the stylistic force of these seemingly mundane symbols, and I am, at long last, more confident about how to use semi-colons and colons.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Great Feast Inspired by Chris Adrian's The Great Night

The kids are out of school for summer, which means there will be no more rushing to get them out the door in the mornings.  There will be hot, lazy days by the pool and reading lots of books.  To celebrate the season, I made a Great Feast inspired by Chris Adrian’s book, The Great Night.  So get out your grill, and crack open a beer and Adrian’s book.  You’ll be feeling the midsummer magic in no time.
Sweet and "Sorrow" Chicken on bed of "Soy"-lent Greens

Molly’s Sweet and "Sorrow" Chicken
"She hadn’t meant or wanted to enjoy that unexpected feast, but she had, and it made her feel big in her soul, how she could delight in the texture of a crispy bit of chicken skin at the same time that she mourned her lost boyfriend and her lost mind, and she didn’t have to choose between delight and despair: she could experience them both to their fullest simultaneously."
Bird on the barbie

Monday, June 6, 2011

Discussion of The Great Night by Chris Adrian

The Great Night by Chris Adrian is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream wearing the mask of tragedy.  Here’s a quick synopsis:  Three mortals coming from three different parts of San Francisco get lost in Buena Vista Park on Midsummer’s Eve.  They are all on their way to a party thrown by Jordan Sasscock.  The get lost because fairies live under the hill in the park, and Puck causes all hell to break loose.  Oberon, the fairy king, has left his wife, Titania, because she couldn’t stop grieving a dead human child they had both come to love.  Although Titania sent Oberon away, she is depressed and wants him to return home.  Desperate to get Oberon to return, she unleashes Puck from his magical bonds that keep him in control.  Puck is a murderous menace to faerie and mortals alike, and only Oberon can stop him.
            The three lost mortals are Henry, a pediatric oncologist with OCD issues resulting from his abduction as a child and his “mommy” issues.  He was dumped by his lover who couldn’t deal with his compulsive behaviors.  Then there is Will, an arborist/short story author, who falls in love with Carolina.  Will and Carolina both lost their brothers and hooked up in their mutual sorrow.  Carolina eventually dumps Will because of his sexually adventurous extra-relationship activities.  Will unrealistically hopes he’ll see Carolina at the party and get back in her good graces.  Finally, there is Molly, a floral shop girl, who grew up in an uber-religious family that rocked a Christian band.  They were like a Holy Rolling Partridge Family or the Jackson Five on Jesus.  During Molly’s childhood, she felt she didn’t fit in with her family and related better to the troubled foster children that cycled in and out of her home.  She tried becoming a Unitarian minister, but couldn’t relate to grieving parishioners.  That all changed when she found her boyfriend’s corpse hanging from a tree.   

Friday, June 3, 2011

Midsummer Madness: Books to Celebrate Fairy Magic

Die Elfenkönigin Titania streichelt den eselsköpfigen Zettel by Johann Heinrich Füssli ca. 1780 - 1790 
Midsummer’s Eve (June 24th) will soon be upon us.  It’s a shame Americans don’t celebrate it like the Europeans do, especially those wild Scandinavians, Finns, and Estonians.  I guess when you’re pounded by icy cold most of the year, you like to really throw it down in the summer.  Midsummer is a time for bonfires, drinking, singing, dancing, giant swings, picking flowers by the moonlight, and finding treasures beneath a will-o-the-wisp.  I imagine there’s also a little romance involved and a fair amount of lewd behavior.  For instance, those crazy Latvians like to run around naked at three a.m. to mark the festival.  Now that’s as good a reason as any to visit the Baltic countries.  Whoo-hoo! Where’s the sarīkojums?! (That’s Latvian for par-tay.)

Sadly, Book Phantom can’t make it to Latvia and will have to make her own little Midsummer Celebration; there will probably be a bonfire and some drinking, and with enough of said drinking, there may be something that approximates singing and dancing.  I’ll probably have to draw the line at streaking through my little town, because I’m middle-aged and that’d just be gross.  Plus, I doubt the local Baptists would turn a blind eye toward naked shenanigans done in the name of heathen debauchery.  So, I’ll just have to settle for some reading revelry (and I anticipate a bit of it will be lewd!).  For June, I’ve selected books that will imbue me with the magical feeling of this happy season – all of my picks pertain to fairies and fairy enchantment.

  • New Release:  The Great Night by Chris Adrian is a modernized take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It takes place in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, where three mortals who have experienced tragic losses find themselves lost on their way to a party.  Fairy magic is afoot when Titania releases a dark and murderous Puck from his bonds in hopes her absent Oberon will return to save the day.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Books to Celebrate Bathroom Reading Month

My reading room
“That’s exactly why I’ve designed the Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” Miss Hilly say.  “As a disease-preventative measure.”
I’m surprised by how tight my throat get.  It’s a shame I learned to keep down a long time ago.
Miss Skeeter look real confused.  “The Home…the what?”
“A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help.  I’ve even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he’ll endorse the idea.  I pass.”
Miss Skeeter, she frowning at Miss Hilly.  She set her cards down faceup and say real matter-a-fact, “Maybe we ought to just build you a bathroom outside, Hilly.”
                        From The Help by Kathryn Stockett

“After his breakfast he walked the path to the outhouse.  He felt remarkably peaceful sitting there, shut away from the world.  He’d always thought of the privy as a holy place, a refuge from all but the most basic human concerns.  As a novitiate he scandalized his superiors by claiming it wasn’t the church but the shithouse that was God’s true home in the world, the pungent effluvium as meditative an odor as incense, sunlight through the crescent moon carved in the door providing the dusky ambience of a monastery cell.”
                        From Galore by Michael Crummey

“…at once the tap glowed with a brilliant white light and began to spin.  Next second, the sink began to move; the sink in fact, sank, right out of sight, leaving a large pipe exposed, a pipe wide enough for a man to slide into.”
                                    From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

In literature, the bathroom has served as a means of racial oppression, a place for spiritual contemplation, or an entryway to secret dangers.  It's also a great place to read.  June is Bathroom Reading Month, and to celebrate, I’ve compiled a list of "bathroom-y" books for all reading types.  Keep ’em on top of the toilet for those captive moments throughout the day.