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.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Every January, I reread The Graveyard Book. A rainy day will come, or I’ll be in bed with a cold, and this overwhelming urge to pull it off the shelf again overcomes me. Even the year it was published, I read it again in January. I don’t know why it has such a strong influence on me during this time of year, but I suspect it’s something to do with the sense of mystery that permeates the novel and these early dark days of winter.

I wrote a letter to Gaiman the second or third time I read it, and I searched my computer desperately for a copy because honestly, few things are funnier than seeing me geek out over an author. Unfortunately, although I remember saving a copy before I sent it out, it’s gone now. I can’t even recreate what I wrote, although I know I spent an hour or so working on it while sitting on the couch, watching the rain beat against the window. I also remember the feeling I had – the feeling I always have – after I put this book down. It’s like staring up at the world from the bottom of deep crevasse; up there, the light dances with its shadow and the storms passing make the ground greener, rather than just damp. It’s possible to hear voices, and doors slamming, dogs barking at the music playing too loudly, but deep down, in this narrow reach of earth, everything is muted. Soft-edged. There’s magic, and it’s the kind that’s a little bit dark.

It’s no coincidence, I’m certain, that this is the same feeling I get whenever I enter a cemetery. Each has a quality, an air that’s nearly tangible. No matter how small, walking through those gates, I can feel a change. It’s tinged with the knowledge that even if I felt the urge to shout, it would be tamped down by whatever energy it is I’m experiencing.

That Gaiman wrote a book that so perfectly captured this – well, I suppose it’s to be expected; he’s been one of my favorite authors for twenty years now, after all. His are books that I don’t push on everyone, but instead save for kindred reading spirits. It isn’t fair, really, that I do that, but his writing is…well, it’s a whisper. To me, it embodies the phrase, “walk gently but carry a big stick.” In Gaiman’s books, the wisest characters never forget that.

I have to say that I also love the brutal elegance of this little book. This is a novel I would give to children who don’t like to read (those who do have hopefully already discovered it). It’s what I would call a spiderweb book – delicate, and delightfully intricate, while also being ferociously strong and predatory and frightening. Without a doubt, those are my favorites for young audiences. I don’t think children need mild-mannered books or sanitized reading experiences. I believe they crave an element of danger and darkness because those are the things that are most difficult to face in reality. Reading is a safe space to engage in the consideration of challenging circumstances, and having been a very anxious child myself, I was constantly drawn to books that forced me to face my worst fears. There was something almost magical about it.

Some books seem to spring forth and beg to empower young readers. For me, this will always be one that does just that. It’s hard to think less of one’s self when a book demands respect, when it trusts the intellect of the reader, and when it’s written with so much love for the people lucky enough to turn its pages.

 

For more about Neil Gaiman, go 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.

Winterling, Sarah Prineas

I went through a period of time a few years ago when I was reading almost exclusively Young Adult and Middle Grade novels. It seemed like every time I turned around, another great novel was being published, or a beloved series was on the rise. I have always loved those books because as a child, they offered a sense of adventure, an escape from the tedious stories we often read in school, and as an adult, they offered solace from the reality of the many poor decisions I had made. When I picked up a book, I needed to remove myself from the tedious life decisions that sometimes accompany adulthood, and a large part of me wanted to be transported back to that sense of adventure I felt facing life as a teenager.

ImageMore recently, I’ve been drawn to a wider range of genres and I’ve been gratified to find so much pleasure in these less explored territories. I still love books written for younger audiences though, and when I need a break from more serious novels (or the large collection of memoirs I’ve suddenly found myself in possession of), it’s wonderful to turn to a light fantasy novel like Sarah Prineas’ Winterling.

Because I’ve found myself a little out of practice reading for the Middle Grade audience, I was initially surprised by the simplicity of the characters in this book. While I found them enjoyable to read, they lacked the depth I have come to expect from the (frankly astonishing) books I’ve read over the winter. The evil characters were so evil! The good characters so earnest! Everything was black and white, and even if magic was tearing two worlds apart, I was caught off-guard by how straightforward the plot was.

Then I remembered being ten years old and pulling books like this down from the shelf in the library. Back then, my local branch had a very small section of books for teens (especially young teens), and it was always a joy to find a book like this one, with a tenacious female protagonist who wasn’t so unbelievably brave that I couldn’t imagine myself in her shoes. I loved that I knew who I could trust and who was my enemy – life was so much less clear than that in junior high, and books like Winterling provided just the escape I needed. The world created was simple but magical, the characters peopled by hidden allies, and it all took place in an alternate dimension that seemed just barely out of reach.

Finding books like this that appeal to a younger audience (and their parents) but are also well-written are surprisingly rare. I feel strongly that books with difficult content are often appropriate for people younger than they’re written for, and that many younger readers not only like but need those books; however, sometimes it’s nice to read a novel that doesn’t raise the tough questions. It’s like picking up Anne of Green Gables or Howl’s Moving Castle – funny and sweet with a little adventure mixed in. This is a book that offers a few hours of escape, a refuge from homework and texting and endless after-school commitments. It’s tough being a kid; it may look enviable or easy sometimes from where we stand mired in the challenges of adulthood, but the human condition is not a path free of thorns at any age. Sometimes we all just need an afternoon off, and Winterling is a lovely place to stop and rest for a while.

Visit Sarah Prineas at her site here.

Sunshine, Robin McKinley

Another Thursday, another book I haven’t quite finished in time. Sure, it’s only noon here, and I could put aside the other work I have for the day to finish Sunshine before writing my review, but I won’t. See how I defy you, deadline gods?! See how I spit in the face of completion!?! Or, well, not so much spit, as gently bat away…anxiously…with the baleful eyes of expectant English teachers upon me…

I am trying to care a little less about deadlines though, and a little more about the quality of my reading experience, so if that means battling a little OCD anxiety, I can handle it. Also, this is both a fun book and one I keep putting down to think about; it refuses to be rushed.

Now, I’m going to throw something out here that might cause a few of you to stop reading this post as quickly as your eyes and internet connection will allow, but I implore you – stay with me – if only for a minute. Don’t make me send you over to The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy article “Beware Literary Snobbery,” because I will. Just take a deep breath and refrain from judgement – Sunshine  is like the thinking-reader’s Twilight.

If I had to guess, I would say about a third of readers just bristled on Bella’s behalf, about half threw up in their mouths, and the remaining few are scratching their heads because they live in a cave (or like to pretend they do). I get it (even the cave thing – I’m not aware of about half the pop culture happenings at any given moment). The Twilight books have this curiously divisive effect on readers; as soon as they’re mentioned, heads shake, self-satisfied smirks appear, and furious arguments break out.

Personally, I don’t understand what the big deal is. I read them. Sure, the heroine of those stories is a pretty unexceptional teenager whose life revolves around her boyfriend, but do you stop loving your children just because they act like that? Or do you remember, in a sort of nostalgic, “thank goodness my hormones have the edge taken off” sort of way what it was like to be young and stubborn and in love? Do you give Juliet as hard a time as you do Bella? Because believe me, when I first read Romeo and Juliet, all I could think was, really? Poison? Was he worth it? You knew him, what, three days?! Give me a break. And I was boy crazy. I have a diary from the first grade talking about crushes and kissing boys on the playground to prove it!

But I digress. One of the reasons people give Twilight such a hard time is that they don’t consider Bella to be a strong role model for young women. She’s too ordinary. She’s weak. She needs a man to make her life worthwhile. When I started reading Sunshine, I couldn’t help but compare her to McKinley’s protagonist, Rae Seddon (aka Sunshine). Rae is older (around 25). She has a job she loves baking in her family’s diner. She has a boyfriend she seems at least content with. She has, by all accounts, a good life, and yet she’s restless. Unhappy. And whether she means to or not, she seeks out adventure – ugly, life-changing, unromantic adventure  – that in just two days separates her from the life she’s had.

And that separation makes her weak. She’s afraid all the time. She can’t heal from the psychic or physical stress of her experience. It’s alienating, even when what she wants most is to go back to a safer, more ignorant existence.

Now, I’m only a little over halfway through the book, so maybe it takes a more traditionally romantic turn. If so, I don’t expect it’s the focus of the story in the same way Bella’s love triangle is the focus of the Twilight books. Sunshine is more of a dystopian novel that happens to have vampires than a vampire novel that happens to have romance.

That being said, I still find these two protagonists to be more similar than I expected. They’re incredibly vulnerable. They’re loners, more by choice than by necessity, and yet, when faced with strangeness and horror that would stretch the imaginations of many people, they both do their best to stand against the worst parts and accept that vampires might be more than the sum of the stories told about them. They allow a bridge to form between themselves and a supernatural community where none could have been erected to connect them with their own.

McKinley just manages to do this in a way that appeals to a wider audience. She also doesn’t make the mistake that often (sadly) damns YA books from greater acceptance – she doesn’t choose a teenager to tell her story. I love YA as a genre, and I remember my own teens as being an insane(ly interesting) time, so I enjoy reading from that perspective. Other people don’t relate well to those characters and feel more comfortable in other genres. Fortunately, books exist that bridge the gap for both types of readers, and Sunshine is one of those books.

It’s part suspense, part character study, part family drama with a little comedy to humanize it. I still find McKinley’s pacing to be on the slower side, but it works well in this book, better than it did in Beauty. Rae is a thoughtful woman – the book reflects that. I believe that, like most of us, she doesn’t want to go rushing headlong into unknown danger, and this makes me like her even more. Also, while she and Bella are both flawed women, Rae has an edge in the wisdom department – sure, twenty-five is no fifty when it comes to making good choices – but it beats sixteen almost every time.

Honestly, I like Bella; she does the best she can with the story provided her, but Rae has untapped depth, and I look forward to curling up with this book tonight and following her back into the unpredictable underbelly of her world.

You can follow Robin McKinley here.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (entry, the 2nd), Catherynne M Valente

My trainer and I were having a conversation today that gave me pause (this was in between wind sprints, which he claims have something to do with improving my VO2 max…I just call it Zombie Avoidance Tactics with Associated Panting…). He was asking me if I’d read The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter books, and I told him, yes, to both, and hadn’t I told him only last week that he would love The Hunger Games with all the killing and the running and the girl power (he’s writing his thesis on training young women athletes)?!

“Yes,” he said. “You did mention it, but you were disgusting and sweaty so I couldn’t take you seriously.” At least, I assume that’s what he was thinking, because to be honest, I would not trust a girl who sweats as much as I do either.

Just kidding. What he was actually saying, without saying it at all, is that he was a boy (well, a twenty-five year old male, but who are we kidding) and that boys and books have a rocky relationship, especially if said boy is also athletic and defines himself firmly in the physical realm. For all I’m scared of jumping hurdles and swinging a baseball bat in front of crowds of people who look much better in spandex than I do, my trainer is equally drawn to and afraid of books.

He wants to like them. He talks to me about them a lot, although always with a sheepish expression. He really loves to learn, but he’s most comfortable at seminars and in lectures. He seemed so hopeful today, while I was trying to hold myself in plank, inquiring whether there were lots of good books out there for guys.

“Maria,” he said, “are there lots of good books out there for guys?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I can think plenty of books you’d like.”

“Really?” I could tell from his voice that he didn’t believe me one bit.

“Yes.”

“Huh.”

We left it at that, but I went home disappointed that I hadn’t convinced him that books exist on every topic under, over, and through the sun. I thought of how much he would love The Hunger Games, or Into Thin Air, or Born to Run, or Ender’s Game, or Why I Fight…I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll come to the point that connects this conversation with my thoughts on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

The paragraph from this book that I shared on Monday, it spoke to how heavy a heart grows from reading. The whole book weaves in and out of its own narrative to prove just that point. And even September, its twelve-year-old protagonist, understands this on a fundamental level – reading about experiences outside of our own make our lives and thoughts and dreams that much richer and more expansive. Reading allows us a landscape to play out our wildest desires and most hidden fears without relinquishing power. It’s liberating even while it bears down our hearts with the cares of the world.

Awhile back, I had the pleasure of reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I didn’t know anything about living on a reservation before I read it (aside from the very little we’re taught in school), but he allowed me inside his story so that a part of me could be opened to the hardships and humor of a world far removed from the one I live in. And when Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco) was found dead this past weekend, a man who I only knew from the pages of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, I felt an intensity of loss I never expected – because McDougall wrote of his friend with such frank tenderness and esteem, I too experienced a deep stillness at the news his unexpected passing.

It really doesn’t matter whether we like fiction or biographies or poetry or stories written for children – it’s a trusting of books that opens us to the rawness of loving other people, different people, hard to imagine or even like people. I love that Valente’s book uses one girl’s adventure to explore this idea in a way that most adults would instantly grasp and savor, and that children will wonder at and explore with every passing year.

In her words:

I shall tell you what Calpurnia Farthing said. “The riddle of the Ravished,” she whispered, “is that they must always go down into the black naked and lonesome. But they cannot come back up into the light alone.” (pg 132)

or, as Lev Grossman wrote, in his crushingly true fashion, at the end of The Magician King:

He was alone. The stone square was silent. He felt dizzy, and not just because he’d hit his head. It was all crashing in on him now. He’d thought he’d known what his future looked like, but he’d been mistaken. His life would be something else now. He was starting over, only he didn’t think he had the strength to start over. He didn’t know if he could stand up. (p 399)

I have heard it said many times that we come into this world alone, and that we will leave it the same way. And, you see, alone, we are all tired, broken, ignorant. We are solitary heroes in search of a story. Thank goodness, then, for friends and enemies,  for misunderstandings, adventure, and raw, heavy hearts in the process of growing up.

Beauty, Robin McKinley

When I was back east visiting my family last week, a dear family friend gave me a few books by Robin McKinley as a belated birthday present. While we were discussing in what order I should read them, she mentioned this book, Beauty, which she had given me years ago for another birthday. I couldn’t remember what I’d done with my copy, but it turns out, my mother had borrowed it then stuck it on her own shelf (a habit both of us have, much to our mutual dismay!) so I pulled it out and tossed it into my suitcase.

The friend who had gifted me these books dearly loves the story of Beauty and the Beast, and although I’m not positive she knew this when she gave the book to me, it’s also my favorite fairy tale. As a child, it was the only Disney movie I could stand, and as I got older, I sought out other retellings. Without a doubt, this is the best one I’ve found so far, although I’ve discovered in my questing that there are infinite versions of the story, and there may well be one out in the world I will enjoy more.

One of the qualities I most love about McKinley though is her ability to write books intended for a young audience that are also enjoyable for an older one. I could easily have read this book when I was ten and loved it, and twenty years later, I envy her talent in creating such a richly textured world for this familiar tale.

During this reading, I was especially drawn to the home she creates for Beauty and her family in the countryside. It’s warm and cozy – a cheerfulness that comes from a combination of hard work and being surrounded by family pervades this section – and when Beauty leaves it behind to live in the Beast’s much grander castle, I found myself entrenched in a melancholy I couldn’t shake. For all the exquisite gardens, gowns, and food, even for his library holding every book ever written (even those not penned yet), I found myself longing for her to return to her old, simple life. Why couldn’t the Beast join  her family there, leaving the castle behind for village life? Why couldn’t the tidy wrap-up leave them chopping wood together, or tending to the vegetable garden? Why is it happily ever after could only take place with such extravagant wealth shrouding the couple?

While I’m not saying money can’t buy any happiness at all (I have seen the misery of financial hardship), I find that a happy life engaged in joyful work is much more satisfying to me than an easy life where a person has nothing but time to think about his or her problems. It also just seems dull, the perfection McKinley describes – Beauty’s days in the castle, spent riding and reading and changing clothes, would grow dull after a while. It’s like a vacation that will never end, and yet what makes a vacation really wonderful is its contrast to daily life.

I don’t remember feeling this way when I read this book years ago, but as an adult, the lives I most admire are those of friends who know how to cook everything, who eat from their own gardens, who home school ingeniously, and who seem to be able to mend anything and everything in a pinch. This is the life Beauty leaves for the Beast, and I just find myself wondering if they wouldn’t both be happier returning to that, together…

You can find the most up-to-date information about Robin McKinley at her blog, http://robinmckinleysblog.com/