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.
  • Classic: I know the obvious choice here would be Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I’ve already read it.  As much as I love it, I’m looking for something different.  So I chose a classic from Shakespeare’s age:  Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a massive, Infinite-Jest-sized, allegorical poem.  Laced with virtue and chivalry and anti-Spanish and anti-papal sentiment, it was an ode to Queen Elizabeth I.  Spenser was clearly a genius with the sucking up; he curried favor like an Indian chef curries a vindaloo.  You can download the full text here. 
  • Nonfiction: Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doublers in the Middle Ages by Claude Lecouteux.  Lecouteux analyzes Western European legends and discusses the concept of a triple soul, whereby one, The Double, can leave the body and journey where it chooses.  I’m projecting (not astrally) that there will be plenty of mythology and maybe even some Jungian analysis of the soul. 
  • Juvenile Fiction:  The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.  This is listed as a Young Adult book, although, with its drawings, it looks like a modern-day Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz.  It is a newish release (May 10, 2011), and the title evoked such strong associations of girl power, I just had to get it.  Twelve-year old September from Nebraska is whisked away to Fairyland by the Green Wind.  She meets mythical beasts and goes on a quest for a witch’s spoon.  I wonder if her battle cry is “Spooooon!”  (That’s for all you Tick fans).  September’s adventures are both sweet and tragic because Fairyland is both magical and dark.  The tale has been called lyrical, whimsical, flavorful, and complex.
  • Writers’ Reference:  Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly by Gail Carson Levine.  Levine is the queen of reworked fairytales, such as Ella Enchanted and Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, so she’s bound to be a helpful Fairy Godmother for aspiring authors.  Although this is a writer’s how-to for young adults, I’m sure even the mature reader could benefit from a sprinkle or two of Levine’s authorial fairy dust.
Here are some suggestions for “bonus” reads if you're not beguiled by the above selections:
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  Clarke is a genius at world building and characterization.  I stewed in this story like I was in a luxurious bubble bath.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.  If you haven’t read it, it might be good to read before picking up Chris Adrian’s The Great Night.
  • If you love YA or have a tween reader like I do, Aprilynne Pike’s Wings series might be for you.  It’s about a teen girl named Laurel who discovers she’s a fairy when a huge blossom grows out of her back.  Book one is Wings, book two is Spells, and book three (released in May 2011) is Illusions.  I liked the first one well enough, but book two didn’t draw me deeper into Laurel’s character.  I probably won’t read book three, but my ten-year old has read them all and really liked them.  The first two were pretty safe for tweens, and I like that my daughter and I could share a reading experience.
  • If you want some classics of children’s literature, you can download Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies free at  I will probably peruse these in my spare time, when I’m not shakin’ it around the bonfire.

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