The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Whenever I head “home” to visit my family, I always find myself sucked into their bookshelves. It’s not that I don’t bring my own books to read (during one memorable visit, I read eight Sookie Stackhouse novels on the sly); it’s that every room in my parents’ house is filled with books refusing to be ignored.

The rooms my brother and I used to call our own? Now, an office and a guest room, both lined with shelves fairly trembling under the weight of what I like to call “hobby” books, but are in actuality my parents’ professional tools (in my mother’s case, theology and grassroots politics, in my father’s, theatre, music, and biographies). In the upstairs hallway, the shelves are mostly  poetry, plays, and extremely well-loved children’s books. In the living room, it’s the classics and beautifully crafted research books, while the sun porch is overflow for a hodgepodge of left-overs. Even the dining room has become home to my old childhood bookcase, filled, at Christmas time, with our most beloved holiday books, and the rest of the year, with my dad’s massive Shakespeare collection.

It’s impossible not to get distracted in a house like that. I also find that while I don’t have a lot of free time while I’m here, I do have many pockets of fifteen-minute windows when I’m just…waiting. Inevitably, over the course of my stay, I pull out a book or three in every room of the house, and when I find myself stranded with too little time to do anything useful and too much to just stare blankly out the window, I’ll pick one of them up.

This week, I’ve been mostly pawing through old books from my childhood. There is just something so dear about the worn covers and the places where I folded pages down or spilled (yes, I am terrible to books). The first one I pulled out after I arrived was The Borrowers. I must have read this fifteen times when I was a kid (although somehow, I never realized it had sequels – go figure), and last summer, I went to see the Miyazaki film based on it (The Secret World of Arrietty) which tickled my desire to reread it when next I had the chance.

Having done so, I can say with greater confidence that, although I adore Miyazaki’s work, the movie is not as enjoyable as the book. One thing I did notice coming back to the text was that the pacing for both was surprisingly similar; when I was at the theatre, I felt like it was dragging a bit, but when I pulled out the novel, I realized it’s just one of those stories from another era of children’s fiction. The pace is slower, and the setting is lavished upon. It actually makes for a beautiful adaptation to a visual art form, but the story didn’t translate quite as well (or perhaps that had something to do with it going from British book to Japanese script to American script – something may have been lost in this game of Telephone).

The story embraced me immediately. It brought me back to this warm, happy ball of childhood when a house had so much potential for mystery and exploration. The Borrowers were as real as could be to me again, at least for a few minutes (at which point, the reality of setting the table and checking on dinner returned).

It was a charming fireplace, made by Arrietty’s grandfather, with a cogwheel from the stables, part of an old ciderpress. The spokes of the cogwheel stood out in starry rays, and the fire itself nestled in the center. Above there was a chimney-piece made from a small brass funnel, inverted. This, at one time, belonged to an oil lamp which matched it, and which stood, in the old days, on the hall table upstairs. An arrangement of pipes, from the spout of the funnel, carried fumes into the kitchen flues above. The fire was laid with matchsticks and fed with assorted slack and, as it burned up, the iron would become hot, and Homily would simmer soup on the spokes in a silver thimble, and Arrietty would broil nuts. How cozy those winter evenings could be. Arrietty, her great book on her knees, sometimes read aloud; Pod at his last (he was a shoemaker, and made button-boots out of kid gloves – now, alas, only for his family); and Homily, quiet at last, with her knitting. (pg 20)

There is a quality to books like this that inspire so much ingenuity. As a child, I would read the descriptions of the Borrowers’ home with rapt fascination. When I finished, I would try to build houses like theirs myself (ostensibly for my dolls, but since I didn’t care much for the dolls themselves, they were almost permanently boxed while I constructed). This was less about the plot to me than about the world that could be created. I was fascinated by the repurposing of materials to create something special – a skill that came in handy when I taught preschool and had a limited budget.

As much as I love books that are being written for young people now, I can’t help but be a little nostalgic for the novels of my youth (which were, incidentally, of my parents’ youth as well). They might not have been the most riveting adventures, but they straddled the line between reality and make-believe in a way I find utterly charming and nearly impossible to reproduce.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” (p 112)

If you were to do search for The Ocean at the End of the Lane this week, you would surely find hundreds of reviews about it. Dozens of them have been brilliantly written by friends of Neil Gaiman; these people have Opinions about this book being the best Gaiman has ever written and they are worth reading. They know him and they know great literature, and one way or another, they will tell you the same thing I will.

It is a beautiful book, and you should read it.

You don’t really need to read anything else I have to say about it. “It’s a beautiful book, and you should read it” sums up the general consensus. Everything after this point is just…me.

It’s me wondering how hard it has been for Neil Gaiman to carry around this story. The boy in the book is him. Or at least I believe it’s him. In his acknowledgements, he’s quick to say it isn’t, not really, but it is. Maybe the father is not his father and the house is not his house and the monster is not his monster, but all the same, it’s still him more than any of his other books have been.

I’ve been reading his books and blog for long enough to recognize the drain pipe and escapism and quiet, fearful truths as his. He’s been hinting at this book for years, whether he knew it or not. It became obvious as soon as I started to read. The way the man walked down the road in the prologue, or how there was forgiveness in the end, but also a vein of hurt that never completely opened itself up…

It wasn’t so much like finding his diary, though, as it was burrowing into his memory for an hour or two. It was as I imagined Gaiman’s memory to be – eternally struggling between the dark and the light. It frightened me, but I also knew that I would find goodness there. I wanted to protect the child in these pages, but not too much, because I could imagine the man he would grow to be if he was allowed to face down his own fears. This man would write wonderful stories and then read them aloud to weave the magic and hold it there. He would reveal  wonder lurking in all the most ordinary places, even if the luster of it was sometimes worn or sharp-edged or dangerous. He would catch my heart when I was a child and remind me that this was the heart I would always have. I would never grow up, not really, but I would live in the world anyway, and be happy about it, wrapping my hands around the truest truths I understood at seven, and taking them, always, with me.

I have always accepted that this is a world of monsters, although I don’t know if it’s because of how long I’ve been reading books like his, or just who I was meant to be – an anxious believer. In the darkness, there has always been something lurking; it may be an adventure as easily as fear, or it may be a terrible invitation, or it might be just a shadow. The thing about that though, is we need light to see a shadow’s true shape, and to name it. Those troublesome blind spots carve the light into something stronger, and  I wield it, and others do, and then both darkness and light are improved by the struggle.

Which is all just my way of saying, it’s a beautiful book, and you should read it.

 

For more about Neil Gaiman, go here.

The Last Unicorn (part the first), Peter S Beagle

The unicorn was grey and still. “There is magic on me,” she said. “Why did you not tell me?”

“I thought you knew,” the magician answered gently. “After all, didn’t you wonder how it could be that they recognized you?” Then he smiled, which made him look a little older. “No, of course not. You never would wonder about that.”

“There has never been a spell on me before,” the unicorn said. She shivered long and deep. “There has never been a world in which I was not known.”

“I know exactly how you feel,” Schmendrick said eagerly. The unicorn looked at him out of dark, endless eyes, and he smiled nervously and looked at his hands. “It is a rare man who is taken for what he truly is,” he said. “There is much misjudgment in the world. Now, I knew you for a unicorn when I first saw you, and I know that I am your friend. Yet you take me for a clown, or a clod, or a betrayer, and so I must be if you see me so. The magic on you is only magic and will vanish as soon as you are free, but the enchantment of error that you put on me I must wear forever in your eyes. We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream. Still I have read, or heard it sung, that unicorns when time was young, could tell the difference ‘twixt the two – the false shining and the true, the lips’ laugh and the heart’s rue.” (pg 40)

I’ve been trying to savor this book, choosing to read it only a chapter or two at a time even though it lends itself to a hurried read, and for that reason, I’ve had the opportunity to be struck by passages like this one. On the one hand, the story itself transports me back to childhood, with its shady glens and mystical beasts – it has all the magic I searched for with less experienced eyes; on the other, moments like the one above remind me of the endless struggle of growing up, the struggle that continues even after enough years have passed that a birthday cake looks more like a melting wax torch than a celebration.

The Last Unicorn is such a melancholy adventure. Its protagonist is a character that lives for an eternity, after all. I find it hard enough to be mortal, to have the years I have and hope desperately that they are enough, that I will make some small mark on the hearts of people I love before my time is up. Like Schmendrick, poor human wizard that he is, I want to be known and understood for my best intentions, even if even I don’t always know what those are.

It’s always fascinating to me to find a book that’s so well-suited to a young audience – fast-paced, straightforward story-telling, understandable language – but which resonates so deeply with a more mature one. I have no doubt I would have loved this book as a child or teenager, but I don’t know if I would have appreciated the subtly of the Beagle’s writing. It’s so lovely, and sad. I keep finding myself sighing and saying, “Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like to grow older. How does he know? How does he know?!” Quests are supposed to change us, and in this book, I have no doubt that by the end, the evolution will have occurred.

The straightforward nature of such quests, however, in a great book, is turned on its head. I still  remember finishing The Magician King  and experiecning the rising dread of a quest thwarted:

“This isn’t how it ends!” Quentin said. “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!”

“No, Quentin,” the ram said. “The hero pays the price.” (pg 396, The Magician King)

(Damn it, Grossman – that still hurts. Please finish writing the next installment of soul-crushing delight soon.) Maybe The Last Unicorn will have a cheerier ending. Maybe it will be a straightforward “happily ever after,” but I have my doubts. Beagle seems too tapped into the reality of our flawed existence for a cut-and-dry resolution. That isn’t how the real world works, and it isn’t the most satisfying ending to most books either.

Sure, it can be great to know a character has vanquished every demon and reaped righteous rewards, but that may be difficult to relate to as a reader. Off the page, we know that the victory of one week may not matter the next, and more than anything, books serve as a reminder that the world is not only what we know from our own experiences. It’s tangled, and messy, and often brutal. It requires of us great sacrifice, and a willingness to love what might eventually be lost.

The world can be a hard place, and the quests we are asked to complete don’t always seem like the stories we have read. This is because we tend to remember endings above all else. We like to think of every obstacle overcome without bothering to recall how it came to be. We forget that the story is not just the final chapter but everything that came before it. It is the long, lonely nights in unfamiliar forests. It’s the roads that seem to stretch endlessly before us under a scorching sun. It is the friends we have cut with sharp, careless tongues, the friends who have left us so that we may find our better selves again. It is the old crone we must show kindness to, and the kindness we beg from strangers in return. The quest is the most special hard thing we’re ever given – it’s the rock we rub our lives against to shape them into what we want to be.

Clovenhoof, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Do you know what kind of people have meetings in Starbucks? Important people. People who wear well-pressed suits and order black coffee with no room (or, occasionally, on blustery, miserable Mondays, a venti upside down nonfat mocha with an extra shot, topped with whole milk foam…). They come equipped with spread sheets and projections, yet they’re always late enough to have to squeeze eight people at a table meant for two with absolutely nowhere for the all the briefcases to go. Then, of course, there are the matching neutrally toned tench coats that should be hung, but end up underfoot and trapped under chair legs.

It’s a very solemn business obviously, and although I have to imagine that these people work in offices with lovely large conference rooms and enough cushy chairs for everybody, I’m the one who gets dirty look for spitting my coffee out when this damned book happened to catch me by surprise. I work from home, people! This is my office (for as long as I can fake a few sips left in this cup), and if I happen to bray unexpectedly, resulting in a mouthful of room-temperature soy latte all over my one nice sweater, it’s my prerogative. You don’t have to stare and make faces; your disgust has been duly noted. Just go back to those bar graphs. I promise untoward delight will not impinge on the sanctity of your coffee shop meeting again.

I did promise (silently, because there were about sixteen of them and I prefer to save my smart alec remarks for people who know me better and are less intimidating), and it really wasn’t my fault that I broke that promise several more times over the course of an hour. I eventually took the hint that said joviality was truly not appreciated, and saw myself out.

The thing is, I’m usually an excellent coffee shop patron – very quiet and tidy, and I’ll even share the outlet if I have a full charge. It takes a special book to reduce me to a chortling distraction, unworthy of the chair I had to pry from a woman who was only using it for her purse. Clovenhoof is apparently one of the dangerous ones though.

“What do you mean, pretty much a paramedic?” asked the woman standing above them.

“I’m first aid trained,” said Nerys. “Can you feel your legs, sir?”

“I’m first aid trained too,” said the woman.

Nerys stood. “Listen, sweet-cheeks. I don’t mean I’ve just watched a few episodes of Casualty. I am first aid trained. I’ve helped out during several medical emergencies.” She pulled out her phone, flipped to her photo library and passed it to the woman. “Look. Here’s me helping a boy who was choking on a mint imperial.” Nerys knelt down again and began feeling the man’s arms for fractures.

The woman looked at the photograph. “How many emergencies?”

“Several,” said Nerys.

“How many?”

“Two,” said Nerys. “Including this one.”

“Two is not several.”

“Two is more than one and therefore is several.” She put her arms under the man’s shoulder and began to turn him over. “Sir, I’m just going to put you in the recovery position.”

“Oh, what’s the point?” he said, producing fresh tears.

“To stop you swallowing your tongue, I think.”

“Hang on,” said the woman. “Did you ask someone to take a picture of you giving this boy the Heimlich Manoeuvre?”

“Yes,” said Nerys irritably, getting the man onto his side.

“He was choking but you stopped to get out your phone so someone could take a photo before you stopped him choking?”

“Who wants to see a photograph of someone who is no longer choking?” She raised her eyebrows to her patient. She was sure he understood that the woman was some sort of imbecile. (loc 304)

And that was just a funny moment – not one of the sections where I legitimately laughed out loud. I’m not sharing any coffee spewing moments here – not to be a spoil sport, but because I swear they will be much funnier if you read them in context. (I know this for a fact, because I read out one a piece to a friend over Skype and she thought I was deranged. So, context.)

I have to admit I stumbled on this book in an unconventional way. I was reading up about one of its authors, Iain Grant, who is gathering interest for a collaborative writing project called Ten to One. I decided to submit a brief resume and writing sample for consideration in the project, mainly because in my experience, writing with a partner or two (or in this case, ten) is infinitely more fun than writing alone. Writing with others shores up personal weaknesses and it introduces ideas that can lead to far better books. Clovenhoof was written this way, and I think it worked out brilliantly. One of my all-time favorite books, Good Omens, was also written collaboratively, as was The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, a favorite from when I was young. While I have no idea what kind of writers will end up being chosen for this project, I’m thrilled by the idea of it.

When I left college and moved 3000 miles away from my family, my mother and I decided to write a collaborative novel just for fun. I was lonely, she was heartsick, and we both needed a way to stay in touch that transcended ordinary emails. It was from this desire that our clunky, silly (still unfinished) book was born. At least once a week, I would write a chapter and send it to her, then she would write another and send it back. The characters were related (both literally and figuratively), but their story lines didn’t overlap much. This gave us room to pursue our own plot lines while still driving the other half of the story forward. It was wonderful.

Even though the novel was not particularly good (I dare you to look back on something you wrote when you were twenty-three and claim it as anything but melodramatic insanity), it meant so much to me. It motivated me during a difficult transition, and it brought me closer to my mother. Most importantly, it was fun. Her chapters always made me laugh, and I loved that she looked forward to seeing my work as much as I did hers. After all the competition of the academic world, what she and I created was pure bliss.

I got the impression, reading Clovenhoof, that these authors, too, were having a good time with it. It’s a quality that shines through in a book, and one that I can never get enough of. I knew from the first page of this book that I would enjoy it. A snappy novel about the devil getting sacked by his sanctimonious board of directors and sent to live in a suburb in England? It was almost too on the nose in its targeting, to be honest. And a week before Easter, at that? I never really stood a fighting chance against its charms…

 

Heide Goody and Iain Grant may be found at their book-related blog.

As Lie the Dead, Kelly Meding

So, who thought it was a good idea to pick up the paperback borrowed at Christmas from my sister-in-law and start reading it last Thursday as a distraction from the mess of packing? It must have been me, because somehow I found myself bringing an unnecessary item with me on the plane even after I swore that I would stick to Kindle purchases for the next few months. It wasn’t my brightest idea, but then, sequels can have an undeniable power over the rational mind.

As Lie the Dead is the second (of four, I believe) books in the Dreg City series, the first of which (Three Days to Dead) I wrote about in December. This book picks up precisely where the first left off; it’s a rare move that I appreciate, especially in this genre, although the three and half month interval between readings did leave me a little fuzzy on the details of what had happened at the very end of Three Days. I’d never considered what challenges such a decision would cause for a writer – there is a finesse required when picking up characters right at the moment they’ve managed to escape the last bloody climax and shoving them along into the next adventure – until I tried it myself. I will be the first one to say the Kelly Meding does a much better job of it than I did. It was certainly worth straining my brain to recall a few chapters of another book in order to see where she took the story in this one.

My own experience in trying to take characters from one story to another was haphazard at best. In retrospect, I realize I didn’t have enough of the big picture sorted out, and when I got into the second part, it turned much darker than I was expecting. I kept looking for the snarky, comically lovelorn people I’d written months before, and they were nowhere to be found. In their place, I found fragile, damaged characters with histories I hadn’t even guessed at, and all of that back story really got in the way of the story I thought I wanted to tell. Stupid characters taking charge of their own lives – completely unfair in light of that fact that they wanted me to do all the heavy lifting when it came to actually telling the story. I was intrigued when I realized that Meding was doing just what I’d tried (and failed) to do. Her characters were getting thornier and more complex as well, but it worked with the direction of the series. The changes in them made it easier to understand and accept the story that was unwinding rather than seeming wildly out-of-place.

I admit, I was jealous. And, admittedly, distracted from reading in large part because, as much as I wanted to know what happened as a reader, I was more curious about how it all came together as a writer. (For the record, I haven’t figured it out completely yet, but it has certainly gotten the wheels turning, which is actually quite inconvenient since I had my heart set on working out the problems of another project when this idea decided to hunker down and demand my attention. Some day I will learn that I am not completely in control of this process and I’ll be better off for it, but today is not that day. Tomorrow probably isn’t either.)

Ultimately, I was impressed by how little of the story I was able to guess at as I read. I’m not usually the type of person to poke a stick into the conclusion to see what wiggles out; I much prefer to be surprised. In some cases, of course, writers seem determined to point the way with big, bold neon arrows, and although guessing at the twists doesn’t prevent me from enjoying a story, it’s nice to have a little mystery left in the relationship. Meding manages to sock it to her characters on a number of levels, repeatedly, until all I could think was that they really deserved a shower, or a nap, or at least some chocolate – anything to keep them going in the face of ever-escalating ass kickings and subterfuge – and she does it without giving away all of the secrets I expect she has planned for the next book.

 

To learn more about Kelly Meding, head over here.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

A week or two ago, I was talking with my neighbor and she mentioned that she had finally gotten around to starting one of Neil Gaiman’s books. Which one, I demanded to know. She thought about it for a minute and then replied, the one with the door. Ahh, Neverwhere. The second book of his I ever read. I immediately besieged her with questions about how she was enjoying it, and offered recommendations for her next selection, and when her sons demanded our attentions again, and she seemed quite grateful to be out of my Gaiman-obsessed firing range.

I don’t blame her. I suspect it’s the same feeling my mother got last week when we went to the second run theatre to watch The Rise of the Guardians for three dollars apiece, and I kept leaning over to confirm that I thought for sure the Boogie Man was drawn from a photograph of Gaiman. Look at the hair, I whispered. And the terrifying, yet strangely mesmerizing grin. It’s as though he has a story – one I would probably follow him into frightening territory to hear. I could practically hear her eyes rolling, so I’m quite glad I didn’t mention how I silently squealed over the movie having a character called The Sandman…

So yes, I admit it. I can be a bit overwhelming when it comes to all things Gaiman. And I have no problem rereading his novels over and over again. When I pulled this one off the shelf, I also remembered that it’s just two more weeks until what promises to be an incredible radio adaptation premieres (cast list and details here), and I got all amped up again. There might have been fist pumping…

When I searched for that link, I also came across an interesting detail about the book which I had never known; the novel was actually a companion piece for the television series created by Gaiman and Lenny Henry in 1996. The plots are the same, but the novel is a much richer expression of the story, in my opinion at least. I’ve seen the series two or three times though, so obviously, I don’t hate it – I just prefer the book. I am looking forward to seeing it transformed, yet again, into a new format with a cast of brilliant British actors (I’m actually nervous about just how good – and by “good,” I mean “terrifying” – the cast is said to be). It fits into what is becoming something of a theme for me this year – the translation of fiction.

I haven’t been intentionally seeking out these projects, but sometimes, even when we aren’t looking for a thing, it manages to find us anyway because, well, we need it to – it is simply time for us to find it, or for it to find us so that we can face it or deal with it or vanquish it. This is one of the major ideas at play in Neverwhere, and I believe it’s true for us as readers and creators (and humans) as well. Right now, I’m working on a project that ties in classic texts with modern sensibilities, and even though I haven’t intended to explore other people’s expressions of this idea, it seems to happen anyway. All of a sudden, everywhere I turn, it’s all I can see. Neverwhere is a book I’ve loved for over a decade for its lovely story, compelling villains, and fumbling (yet completely lovable) hero, and inexplicably now, when I come to review it, I can’t help but see what a grand life it has outside of its spine. It gives me a new kind of chills…

 

For more about Neil Gaiman, go here (you can join me in obsessing over his new book, due out in a few months), to twitter, or tumblr.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the second), Catherynne M Valente

“For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.” (pg 8)

Tonight, I was sitting in our church’s tiny Ash Wednesday service, and we sang one of my all-time favorite songs. While I probably should have been reflecting on the season of Lent stretching ahead of me, or about sacrifice, or prayer, instead, I was thinking about this book. I finished it a few days ago, but after posting on Monday, I didn’t feel like I had much more to add. It was a beautiful read, but I couldn’t find the inspiration to write something as thought-provoking as I felt it deserved. It wasn’t until we started singing together that I was swept up by how the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” remind me of the journeys, like September’s, that I most enjoy reading about.

In case you’re not familiar with the song, these are the verses I love best:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
and Grace will lead us home.

I remember singing this at camp when I was a child, sitting with all my friends and looking out at the White Mountains, the night sky stretching above us. The words just flowed out of me, and when we finished, I wanted to sing it again. I get that same feeling still, this powerful surging desire for adventure with all the trials and growth it brings. I long for the mysteries that test me and make me stronger and more compassionate, that will tame my wild, raw heart without chaining it too tightly.

Of course, it helps that I think we create our own grace. We make it, give it, seek it, long for it – grace is, to me, an expression of our best, bravest, most selfless hearts – it is the part of us that steps up and becomes, even if it is only in a tiny way or for a single moment, heroic. It is our conscience and our grit, our faith in ourselves and our trust in the goodness of others.

“September did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts. They do this because they are afraid of the world and of being stared at, or relied upon to do feats of bravery or boldness. And all of those brave and wild and cunning and marvelous and beautiful parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms – and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts, too – end up in their shadow.” (p 77)

When we’re young, it’s so much easier to brave and wild and cunning and marvelous. Each of our worlds are pinpoints of light, and we are at the center, shining more brightly and callously than we could ever believe when we’re all grown up and looking back. We can’t imagine how it was that we were simultaneously so fearless and heartless and young! Our minds were hardly made up at all. We could take one road, then turn off into the darkest woods with only the tiniest of hesitations niggling in the back of our brains. We could intentionally lose ourselves again and again because somehow, some peculiar whirling internal compass compelled us to – for how else would we find ourselves if not by getting completely turned around?

Thus is the murky world of childhood. The monsters are more terrifying, or we maybe are just more helpless, and yet, we are also more resilient, more willing to risk everything for the chance at some unknowable reward. Valente has captured this gamble, this scrambling from the cold grasping of childhood to the passionate frustration of adolescence, leaving us, at the end, on the tricky cusp of adulthood.

Those of us who are already grown can see our own paths leading backwards – the enemies we have vanquished, and the ones who have vanquished us, the delicate lives we have trampled and the people we have saved, even the grace we have given and that which we have received – it’s all there for us to see and remember and regret. I can’t help but love September, with her bursting, untamed heart, even though I know, as does Valente, that the happy ending of this story is only a moment on the girl’s larger journey. There will be greater mountains for her to climb yet, and bitterness will seep in with love, but that’s the adventure of growing up for all of us, isn’t it?

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the first), Catherynne M Valente

There are some books that just bound and determined to keep me from reading them quickly, and this is one of them. To be fair, The first book in this collection, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, had the same effect on me. I’m actually amazed I managed to get through that one in two posts.

Let me be clear – this is not at all an issue of quality. Valente is an incredibly gifted writer, and she weaves wonderful stories for her readers. The difficulty for me is that her books are, well, feasts. Visually speaking, she creates such a rich world that I cannot read it at my normal rate. I have to keep pausing to imagine what Alice in Wonderland-esque quirks she’s telling me about. I love it, but it’s also exhausting to the mental eye. I read maybe two or three of these brief chapters at a time and I feel completely full. I need to take time to live in her world before I can go on.

Valente has the ability to make me feel as though I’m a part of this place she’s created, but the price I must pay is speed. I cannot be my efficient, grown-up self if I want to come and quest with her. And I do. I desperately do – who doesn’t? Who hasn’t heard of Neverland and wondered what it would be like to fly through the window one night? Who hasn’t wanted to trade junior high gym class for a letter from Hogwarts? Who hasn’t been willing to take on the weight of the world in exchange for magic and mystery and heroics?

I think we all want it, in our ways.

Of course, our desires don’t all look the same. I grew up loving Anne McCaffery’s Pern and Piers Anthony’s Xanth, so my perspective on another world may look very different from an eleven year old girl who has read The Hunger Games, and Divergent, and Harry Potter at a highly impressionable age. Granted, I’ve read all those books and loved them too, so when I imagine what I might find if I climbed through a wardrobe, it has the elements of years of pages lovingly turned.

What stays the same though, through decades of literature and analytical critique, is that having a child’s open mind and hard heart is a strength. At the end of an adventure, of course, one does well to be wiser, but at the beginning? Not at all. In order to gain entrance, you must shrink down and let go of logic completely. That is not such an easy thing as we get older and struggle with practicalities all day, every day. Our sense of whimsy fades. Our patience for magic wanes. We read too quickly, and we forget to fall down into the rabbit hole of the story.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I love stories, and I have to cling to a version of myself that I barely remember when I open a book like this. I try to call back the stars to my eyes, desperately wishing for that sure, bright sight I used to have, but it gets harder every year. Even Wendy had to grow up eventually, the adventures of her youth becoming bedtime stories for new children. I always thought that was a desperately sad thing, that final moment when Peter returns for his friend and she has grown up on him. I don’t feel badly for him though – no – I ache for her, for all those years she told herself those tales so that she could remember what it felt like to taste magic.

In these stories, there are always people who inhabit a magical land, who get to live there forever, and then there are the people who have managed to sneak in, the people we follow just in case, someday, we find our path. Their stories are roadmaps for our secret, questing hearts. We must read them carefully or risk missing the moment when our opportunity flits past.

 

For more about Catherynne M Valente, visit her beautiful page here.

Cold Days: A Novel of the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher (post the first)

It’s appalling that I haven’t finished this book for several reasons. The first is that I had been anxiously awaiting its release for over a year; The Dresden Files is probably my all-time favorite urban fantasy series, and usually when a new one is published, I have it read within the week at the very least. Secondly, although these books are relatively substantial, it’s not like I’m reading Tolstoy – Butcher can occasionally be a slow starter (I find that he often ends his novels on a nail destroying cliff hanger but takes a chapter or two to warm up) but he ramps up quickly and the action is non-stop – these are not books I linger over. I usually tear through them with a raging ferocity and find myself incredibly annoyed, ten or so hours later, that I have another eighteen months to wait for a new installment. His are well-written, character-loving, plot twist heavy popcorn novels.

And yet, here I am, almost a week into the new year without even this one delightful book done. I tried, I really did. I read in the airport during our long layover. I read when I woke up early, my body sick but still on east coast time. I read while I was waiting to watch Les Mis (finally) on Saturday night. I read a chapter at a time here and there, trying to collect myself and process the fact that less than twelve hours after we arrived home, my father called to say my grandmother was dying. It’s 2013, and the hits just keep on coming…

I’ve never particularly thought of 13 as being an unlucky number, but so far, I’ve found it difficult to remain completely above superstition. I rang in the new year with a clogged, aching head, and as I sit here this morning, trying to decide whether to turn around and fly back for the funeral while chowing on Tums to beat back my anxiety-related heartburn, I feel a little unlucky. One of the things that I love most about Harry Dresden though, is that he is a relentlessly unlucky guy. He’s a hero, in his way, but he is also beaten down so hard in every book that it takes a supernatural talent to keep rising above. Fortunately for him, he’s a wizard.

I’m not. I am blessed, I admit, with friends as dear and valiant as the ones Dresden fights and laughs and lives beside, and most times that feels as near to magic as I can imagine. There are days for us all when it stands out in stark relief that life doesn’t give a shit whether the last few weeks or months or years have been tough, and the choice – the choice we each face – is whether we want to fight. Dresden always does. He’s not much of a strategist, and he loses nearly as many fights as he wins, but he puts his head down and keeps moving forward against terrible odds. Because that’s what fighters do. To live another day, to have hope that things will get easier, sometimes, all it takes is putting one foot in front of another.

My grandmother was a fighter. She lived a hard life with many a deep valley, but in the last ten years, she and I have become close. I was terrified of her as a child; even though I grew taller than her in the fifth grade, she had a personality that sucked the air out of a room. She could be ferocious and never shied away from confrontation. I was timid and a picky eater – two things an Italian matriarch could hardly abide. In the last weeks of her life though, I visited and she seemed to really see me, an unexpected gift since she hadn’t been communicating almost at all. I sat with her and held her hand; she couldn’t really speak, but when I got up to leave, I told her I loved her and she mouthed back at me love. Love. She kept forming that word, although there was no sound at all. Love.

In the last decade, she and I learned to really love each other, to take both of our lives for what they were and accept what they could never be. It was a relationship I fought for, not one that came naturally to me, and it was all the more special for that. Some people we have to fight for; often, we have to fight for ourselves. She taught me that both matter, that it’s fighting that makes life unexpected and powerful and worth everything.

So that is what I’m trying to do. Just one small step forward, and then another, and another, until I can make a decision, or by failing to do so, make one anyway. It’s a little less hard, somehow, with a book on standby, with its flawed, striving characters patiently waiting for me to take a few minutes to remember to fight.

 

For more about Jim Butcher, head over here.

Three Days to Dead, Kelly Meding

I thought I was going to get this post done early. Of course, I thought I was going to be done with Three Days to Dead about two weeks ago, and I just barely finished it in time for my flight yesterday (I can’t read while traveling in moving vehicles, so it was as crucial to finish the book as it was to remember everything on my packing list). Instead, I’ve borrowed my husband’s computer while he gets ready to work from a satellite office, and I’m desperately trying to convince my jet-lagged brain to THINK. And to think quickly, because otherwise I’m going to be stuck typing this on the iPad in a Starbucks with questionable internet. Mmm coffee…

Apparently though, my brain thinks we’re on vacation already, even though we aren’t, not until I’m done writing this. Fortunately, I’ve never met anyone, no matter how intelligent, organized, and efficient, who doesn’t suffer from this problem when a break is so tantalizingly near, so I don’t feel too terrible. I will say, upfront, that I won’t be home again until January 3, so my updates may be non-existent/short/incomprehensible over the next two weeks. I blame that on family, friends, and the Christmas cookie coma I plan to enter this weekend (and by blame, I mean I cannot wait for that to happen). But before I jump off into the whirlwind of holidays, birthdays, and family reunions about to commence, I do want to say a few words about this book.

I love urban fantasy (it’s been a standby for me since I was in the sixth grade), and when I learned this weekend that there are people (people I love! In my own family!) who have never even heard of “urban fantasy” (oh yes – it’s true – I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to explain it), I want to give a fun book from the genre a moment in the spotlight. I think most fans of this particular genre would agree with me that it isn’t easy to find solid, interesting new authors to read.

I’m personally holding onto the newest Dresden File book (which I would call urban fantasy, but which wikipedia insists is “contemporary fantasy” – the wider umbrella under which “urban” falls) for that very reason. It’s a beloved series, and this fall has been too crazy for me to take time to really appreciate a much-anticipated book like that one. Nevertheless, I wanted something light and gritty, and Three Days to Dead fit the bill perfectly. The three strongest points in its favor? A fresh, original plot, strong writing, and a well-written female protagonist.

If you imagine that any of these things could be taken for granted, you may not be a fan of this genre, because let me tell you, we will endure a lot of crap to get a fix when necessary. Seriously. When I was growing up, there was one bookshelf at my local library with science fiction and fantasy, and I read it all – the good, the very bad, and the “I’m embarrassed that the library may still have these titles on record under my card.”

I’m not sorry, in retrospect, that I read some of those books, mainly because they gave me a barometer for the good stuff. It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are to have good books when we’re reading enjoyable, well-paced, clever stories like Meding’s. And while we may never suffer a shortage of great literary fiction or historical biographies, we have seen some dark times in the world of fantasy. We have had to slog through some books that should never have been published. We have had to praise the existence of the Kindle because finally (finally!) we could read some of those terrible books without anyone being the wiser.

It’s a painful thing, to be embarrassed by something so beloved, but it happens. Admittedly, I read almost all of my fantasy novels on Kindle for just that reason – even if the book itself is good, the cover usually gives me away with some unfortunate art. What can I say though? I love guilty pleasure books, and I always will. I’m only glad there are authors out there still willing to dip into the murky pool to get me what I want…

The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m on vacation though October 25, so for the next few posts, I’ll be sharing brief reviews of some of my favorite books.

I have to admit that I have never in my life convinced anyone to read these books. I was in maybe the seventh or eighth grade when I read them for the first time, and I had very few friends at the time who were interested in fantasy. Even the ones who were wouldn’t consent to try them though. To this day, I have no idea why, but I’m still holding a grudge…in fact, I’m pretty sure this could be my super villain origin story. It would unfold with a scene where I’m sitting in front of my bookcase lovingly stroking the tattered covers of some of my favorite books, and all of a sudden, I try to rip them to shreds, fueled by the rage of the perpetually ignored. (I say “try,” because, really, have you ever tried to rip a book apart? It’s ridiculously difficult.) I’m not sure what kind of revenge I could possibly seek for an offense such as this; most likely, the evil version of me would just feel instant regret for destroying books and the rest of the story would be about me trying to repair them, wracked with guilt. Which is one reason why I would make a terrible nemesis.

Nevertheless, I’m still sad that I seem to be the only person on the planet to have read this trilogy (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road). The story was so…forlorn. These were some of the first books I read that defined “angst” for me, and although now I don’t go in for such things (much), I still vividly remember the hold that story had over my innocent young heart. There are certain sections that are just worn away from me paging through them again and again. The characters were so quirky and flawed and lovable, and it all took place in one of my favorite fantasy realms.

Many years after I first found these books, I learned that Kay was recruited  by JRR Tolkien’s son to help edit The Silmarillion. Kay has attributed his success in large part to that experience – to the opportunity to glean so much from one of the best fantasy writers of all times. If I’d known that years ago, maybe I would have had more luck selling his books to my friends. I don’t know. I’m not personally a big fan of Tolkien’s work (the only novel of his I truly enjoyed was The Hobbit), so it might have prejudiced me against Kay myself had I known (I can be a little quirky when it comes to that sort of thing). I do, however, agree that having such an incredible opportunity as a young man shaped him as a writer.

Even though I don’t love Tolkien’s work, he is indisputably one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time, and I can see his influence on Kay’s style. The story he tells in these three books is fascinating and heartbreaking – a precursor, for my heart at least, to the books I love by Lev Grossman, The Magicians and The Magician King. Although Grossman’s style is much more modern than Kay’s, like Tolkien, they channel the emotional resonance that exists as the foundation of the very best books this genre has to offer.

To learn more about Guy Gavriel Kay, go here.

Discount Armageddon, Seanan McGuire

When I was in elementary school, I used to win the Perfect Attendance award every year (except for one memorable year when I got the Near Perfect Attendance award for no other reason than that there had been no student with perfect attendance and I suppose I came the closest, having only missed two days…). I honestly don’t know if other schools even  had such a thing, but mine did, and I was the one who got it. Not because I wasn’t sick – I was an undiagnosed lactose intolerant for almost twenty years, and we were a big milk-drinking family – but because I was sick so often that I assumed that was how everyone felt. If I’d stayed home every time I had a stomach ache, I would probably be finishing up the eighth grade this year.

I never told my parents about my stomach problems because I didn’t want to complain about something so obviously run of the mill (isn’t a child’s perspective a strange thing?), so I suffered unnecessarily for years. The thing is, that almost daily suffering gave me a high thresh hold for what I could ethically consider a “stay home illness,” and consequently, I almost never missed school. (For the record, you could keep your perfect attendance record if you went into school in the morning and were sent home sick, and that did happen to me my share of times because I was so reluctant to say anything in the morning).

Even on the days when there was plenty of evidence that I deserved to stay home, I always felt guilty doing it. Was I sick enough? Was I exaggerating the symptoms? Could I tough it out for at least a few hours? Often by the time my parents came upstairs to see why I wasn’t following my rigid morning routine (I came downstairs dressed, packed up, with bed made every morning within the span of the same few minutes…), I had worked myself into hysterics trying to decide whether or not I was legitimately sick.

This is not an issue that has eased up much for me as I’ve gotten older. Now that I work from home, it’s easier to say, write from bed if I’m not feeling well, but when I was teaching, I would go to great lengths not to miss work and inconvenience my classroom. When I had swine flu, I went to work three of the seven days I was unbearably sick (to be fair, I didn’t know what I had until I had to go to the hospital that third night). And this week, when my diet has consisted mainly of Gatorade and apple sauce, I still thought it was necessary to go out for a run to prove that I was doing something (turns out what I was doing was ensuring a long, painful walk back to the car).

Fortunately, over the years, one of my best friends has been trying to break me of this ridiculous anxiety. She is (self-proclaimed) one of the laziest people in existence, and she never, ever goes to work if she feels even a tickle in the back of her throat. She says life is too short and she’s paid too little to suffer like that. Her solution to any illness is curling up in bed with a good book, and she stays there until she’s feeling better or has finished whatever series she’s gotten sucked into…

So for once, I decided to take her advice. I canceled all my appointments, put my computer and my phone away, and crawled under the covers with Discount Armageddon, because really, what better way is there to pass the uncomfortable hours than with frothy urban fantasy? I have to tell you, I think my friend is on to something. I don’t think I looked up for about five hours, and when I finally finished, I actually didn’t feel quite as bad as I had before. I felt sort of…relaxed. Like I wanted the next book in the series to be written already (it’s not). Like maybe I would try one of her other novels if I wasn’t feeling well the next day…and like maybe I had wasted a lot of good sick days…

Find out more about Seanan McGuire here.

Royal Street, Suzanne Johnson

Royal Street is the last of the books I read on my vacation (well, last to review, although it was the first I read, mostly curled up on the couch with my parents’ misbehaved but cuddly beagle), and I think it might have been my favorite. It was a recommendation from The Big Idea way back in April, and although the cover is embarrassingly awful in that way only under-appreciated urban fantasy novels can be, it was a wonderful story that blended the events of Hurricane Katrina with old-fashioned New Orleans voodoo and just the right amount of magic.

This is, I think, the third book about New Orleans I’ve read this year. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything about the city before, but each of the ones I’ve picked up have been intriguing. I’m mostly drawn to reading, from a variety of perspectives, about what it was like during the storm and just after, although the city is ultimately more famous for its peculiar brand of raucous southern charm. Having spent very little time in the south, and having never visited New Orleans specifically, I’ve been swept up by the love authors have for this city.

I’d really never given the place much thought, since I neither live close enough to visit nor do I have the inclination to fly across the country to see it, but it’s clear that the people who call it home have an understanding of the place that translates beautifully into compelling novels. Johnson, in particular, manages to combine a potent blend of mysticism, jazz, and the ruin of those days following the storm. I found myself drawn into the flooded streets, more curious than I ever have been before about the resiliency of the people who survived the devastation and the efforts of the city’s citizens to reclaim their homes with such poorly organized help from the nation.

It was especially wonderful to read her perspective on the few pockets of people able to return home immediately after Katrina, about how the culture of the city survived the demolition of so much of the physical property. It was easy to imagine walking down the deserted streets, only to pass the occasional open bar, strains of Zydeco or blues drifting out on the heavy air. There’s just something inherently magical about such a vibrant place being unexpectedly left empty; it’s impossible not to feel the pregnant pause of the moment when a whole city waits to see its future unfold. Johnson has managed to catch at that tipping point and wrap her whole fictional adventure around a single, deep inhalation of reality.

For more about Suzanne Johnson, go here.

Harper Connelly Mysteries (Books 1-4), Charlaine Harris

Although I won’t post this until Monday morning in deference to the schedule I like to adhere to, I’m writing it on Friday. It’s important that I mention that in this instance because although I finished the fourth one of these books last night and had already been considering what to write about, when I woke up at 5 this morning (thank you east coast jet lag), the very first thing I heard about when I checked the internet was the shooting in Colorado.  As of now, twelve people are dead and at least fifty have been treated for related injuries. The alleged shooter is in custody, and although I’m sure more details will leak out before this review goes up, I felt I have to look at in relation to this particular series of books.

Last night before bed, I performed a relaxation ritual that I often use when I’ve read or watched something that provokes a lot of anxiety when I try to fall asleep. This series of mysteries by Harris focuses on crimes against children, and I was especially struggling with some of the images invoked.  I lay and thought about the really horrible things that are going on right now all over the world (when I’m doing this exercise, I intentionally don’t censor myself – the point is to get all the ideas hiding at the corners of my mind out into the open), and after a few minutes, I forced myself to stop and consider all the wonderful people out there who are trying to counteract the horrors I had imagined. Finally, I reminded myself that it’s a balancing act, and the world will always have its share of light and darkness.

It worked well. I fell asleep quickly and I didn’t have any of the hyper-vivid nightmares that I usually do. Unfortunately, when I woke up, the balance had been tipped. I found myself remembering Columbine and the months afterward when school shootings were on the rise. I was a junior in high school then, and I still remember how afraid I was when I understood that people I considered my peers could be capable of such unexpected violence.

I was so angry then, and I am now, that the system fails as often as it does – that so many deeply troubled people fall through the cracks – and that the result is horrific violence. And I was amazed by how much thinking about that tied into my experience over the last week reading these books about a young woman who can find the dead. Harris creates a character who is likable, but deeply damaged,a woman who makes her living experiencing the last moments of the deceased, and who has to remove herself in large part from the outside world in order to remain sane.

Harper Connelly really isn’t the most pleasant character I’ve ever read, but I found myself drawn to her because for all her faults, she’s honest. Although she is far outside the normal flow of humanity, she manages to tether herself to the fringes by holding onto a certain bluntness, and a balanced view of what other people are capable of. She witnesses the worst last moments of any corpse she comes across (and if she’s to be believed, the dead are everywhere), yet she continues to work, to build relationships, and to hope that the law enforcement and victims’ families and clients who employ her will do their best to listen to voices of the dead and learn from them.

I could imagine that seeing the last few moments of a person’s death would be difficult, to say the least, but Harper handles it with only the idea that the dead want to be found, and heard, to comfort her. She doesn’t see who kills them. She can’t help them. She has no superpower beyond her own brain when it comes to solving a case. Most importantly, she has more reason than most to be filled with hatred and disgust toward humanity, but instead, she’s pragmatic about the terrible stories she discovers in many graves. It’s the balance she exhibits that draws me to her. In the face of tragedy, she moves mourning aside to make room for problem solving. She sees justice – true justice, not revenge or vigilante recklessness – as the best gift she can give to any of the bodies she finds.

As I struggle to make sense out of what happened this morning, I have to make myself remember that sense of equilibrium. I try to believe that one event doesn’t misalign the entire universe (although I have no doubt of the damage it has done to those involved), and that while I can’t stop the awful things happening around the world, I do have control over what I do in response. It serves as a reminder that I need to hold myself responsible for the way I behave toward others, that I need to practice compassion until I’m exhausted and then keep practicing it still, that I need to be thankful for all the people in Aurora who will reach out after this to help the families affected. I even have to remember the young man who caused all this pain and hope that this incident will encourage people to be more aware of how others around them might be struggling. Our attention and empathy are the first line of defense against situations like this one happening again.

As Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

For more information about Charlaine Harris, go here.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Michael Rubens

This book was exactly what I needed to take on this vacation. As my friend Ruby, who recommended it to me, said, “it’s a space opera with the sort of witty, slightly scummy hero you usually only get in hard-boiled detective pulp.” Seriously, how can you go wrong?

I’ll tell you. You can’t.

The book is like a wonderful, extended episode of Firefly, a show I loved (and miss) with the passion of a thousand fan girls (you really don’t want to be on the wrong end of a thousand fan girls either – I’ve seen them in action and just thinking about it makes me retreat into the fetal position). Did you see The Avengers? What’s that? You liked it? This book is for you. Picked up Scalzi’s Redshirts and laughed until you wept with joy? Here’s the next book in your queue.

Are you the kind of person who likes to giggle in public? Say, on a train, plane, or  automobile (preferably one you aren’t driving)? Michael Rubens has your number. Maybe you prefer to read shamelessly hilarious cowboy space romps while at the beach with an ice-cold beer stuck in the sand beside you, or on that Kindle app on your computer (sure, right now it’s hidden behind TPS reports, but we all know it’s there and whole heartedly support you getting through a long day at the office adventuring through the universe with a Sheriff tab open).

A personal favorite method of mine, the “sneak a read while visiting family” technique utilizes the smart phone. God bless whoever invented the technology that allows me to get through a delightful chapter while everyone else is debating what we should do for the day (or making dinner, walking the dog, or taking forever to get ready in the morning). This is how I managed to read seven of twelve Sookie Stackhouse books in just over a week the last time I was in NH (I’m, like, a level nine ninja kindle phone reader after that) and made it possible to easily devour this one in less than a day.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer  is perfect for practicing any of the above techniques. Rubens’ characters are, in turns, sweet and ridiculous, his plot maintains a spritely pace throughout, and his sense of humor and mine have clearly been involved in a mind meld. It’s just the kind of light fare that goes hand-in-hand with a short summer attention span…in other words, ideal for both vacation and break-up-the-office-tedium.

Seriously. Just read it. Or don’t (but then, don’t come crying to me when your days are that much less filled with joy).

Head over here to find out more about Michael Rubens. I’ll race you.