Monthly Archives: May 2011
Amazing Journey – “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making” by Catherynne M. Valente
Do you remember the first time you read The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, or Harry Potter, or The Hobbit, or any piece of literary fantasy fiction that may have forever impacted your childhood/young adulthood? I remember the first time I read all of the above, and now and forever would like to add the first time I read Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making” to the list.
This marvelous piece of fiction, which apparently caused a stir when the author first posted it online, has been praised by everyone from Neil Gaiman to Publisher’s Weekly, and even spent some time on the children’s version of the New York Times Bestseller list. For good reason, it’s unbelievably charming.
Our twelve-year-old heroine, September, is sullenly washing dishes one day in her home in Nebraska when a dapper Green Wind comes to bring her on a quest. She’s needed, you see, because Fairyland has been taken over by a villainous Marquess. Whisked off through the air to this magical new realm, September embarks on a journey that combines elements of Narnia and Tolkien with Gaiman and Hogwarts in a kind of quasi-Victorian adventure story Lewis Carroll would probably be mighty proud of and that Madeleine L’Engle would approve of.
Along her way, September meets a host of friends and characters – from a dragon who’s really half a library (A through L) to an affectionate, caring lantern. There are witches and panthers and a boy named Saturday, too, adding to the glorious mischief of the story. Perhaps most adorably, there’s a persistent Key that’s following September, even though she’s way ahead of it. It’s a huge testament to Valente’s talent that the key is an endearing character who’s final appearance makes one want to cheer. None of these characters are simple; September herself is a little petulant at times and the Marquess never appears entirely good or bad.
Much like my beloved, “Harry Potter” books, this is a book for children written as if the writer admires children, and therefore doesn’t feel the need to talk down to them. Bad things happen to nice characters, and nothing cut and dry and easily explained.
It’s so good – and its in stores now. (The book hit shelves on 5/10/2011.) Get a copy and get whisked away on a journey like the best parts of the books you love, but really like nothing you’ve never experienced before.
It’s been on my bookshelf for years, and I’d read it before and marveled at it. However, recently upon the realization that I didn’t remember much about it, I decided I revisit this book.
It was every bit as good as I remember.
Kenneth J. Harvey writes like a cross between Stephen King and Tim Burton. This darkly beautiful novel is both terrifying and uplifting as it combines normal, flawed people with the importance of myths and legends in the collective psyche. Just as a Joseph and Robin (a dad and young daughter) arrive for a three week vacation in a small fishing town called Bareneed, things start to get strange. Legendary creatures (including an albino shark and a mermaid) emerge from the water, and the bodies of people lost at sea for years suddenly wash up on shore. Meanwhile, Joseph finds himself attracted to a mysterious neighbor whose daughter may actually have been dead for a while. Residents of Bareneed, meanwhile, are going to the hospital and dying in droves – apparently all forgetting how to breathe. Throw in a elderly woman who sees people’s Auras, and a local man who claims to have been taken away by fairies at a young age, and you’ve got all the makings of a modern allegory.
What are we, as a society, losing out on by ceasing to believe in things like fairy tales and legends due to our dependence on electronics and television? Are we, essentially, smothering ourselves from the very things that keep us alive and inspired and – perhaps – breathing?
Once again, I couldn’t put the book down thanks both to the intricate and layered plot and Harvey’s glorious writing. I’m surprised that “The Town That Forgot How To Breathe” didn’t get a lot more attention, and I’m surprised it hasn’t yet been made into a movie. It’s practically screaming for it. Time will tell if Hollywood sees it my way.
Great book – read it.
Ms. Katherine Anne Porter has a Pulitzer Prize – yet, until a chance encounter with a quote of hers on a quote website (don’t ask) I had never heard of her. So, when I was browing in Half-Price Books this past weekend and encountered a $1.00 collection of her short stories, I picked it up. After all, Pulitzer Prize for a novel aside, Ms. Porter is known best and renowned most for her stories, so it seemed like a win.
And it was. Mostly.
Admittedly, I skimmed a couple of the stories – there are twenty-five in all – but mostly I was captivated. Porter writes deceptively simple stories about the dark side of humanity. Not the Stephen King dark side, with killer clowns and cars, but a kind of darkness that comes from reality. In the opening story, ‘Maria Concepcion,’ a woman who’s been cheated on goes about her life until the man who wronged her returns to town with the other woman, then gets her revenge. In ‘Rope,’ a new country wife thinks about her unhappiness and dwells on a rope that her husband carries around.
“The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter” contains “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” which is a 1939 book Porter published – actually a collection of three novellas dealing with similar themes, namely death.
Compared often to another Southern short fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor, Porter is definitely a writer worth checking out. There are even moments where her writing reminded me of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (especially in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”) albeit an American gothic version.
Surely this book can be found in many a library and used bookstore – that’s where I got mine. Even if you pay full price, it’s worth the investment.
I don’t see this volume leaving my bookcase anytime soon.
Though I’m admittedly not much for poetry, I occasionally go through mini-phases where I feel like I need to learn more about the art form in order to be a better and more complete reader of the world. Emily Dickinson, to me, is always a safe starting point. I find her poems to be clever, amusing, and deceptively simple when in fact they’re addressing all sorts of issues from love to death.
“Selected Poems & Letters of Emily Dickinson” is a really sweet collection of the poet’s body of work. From her 1,775 poems, many are selected, and combined together with a bunch of letters she wrote to people in her life. The famous hermit lived through her words and wrote to people all over – from relatives to teachers to other writers. In addition, there’s the recollection of Thomas Wentworth Higgins (a clergyman) of his correspondence with Ms. Dickinson through letters over a series of years.
If I had a squabble, it would be that Ms. Dickinson notoriously used dashes in her poems in place of other punctuation, and the editor of this book has removed them in favor of more correct and common punctuation. (Though trying to tie her down with commas and semi-colons doesn’t stop her obvious brilliance.)
Punctuation aside, this 1959 collection would be a great introduction to Dickinson – and it’s going to be a great addition to my bookcase. Granted, the rest of the poetry on my shelf is slim. (Literally, there’s a Whitman collection and a book called “The Sounds of Silence”. That’s it.)
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Franz Kafka’s 1915 classic “The Metamorphosis” was the story of a young man – Gregor Samsa – who awakened one morning to find himself turned into a giant insect. The book is widely discussed and read in schools and years of debate have raged about exactly what sort of insect Samsa becomes. (Vladimir Nabokov, for example, was adamant that Samsa did not become a cockroach, but rather a large beetle.)
Those clever brains at Quirk Classics – aka, the company that launched a million mashups after the smash hit success of their “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – decided to turn the monster genre on it’s head. Instead of a classic piece of literature with some monters worked in, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” became “The Meowmorphosis,” and Gregor Samsa awakens to discover he’s become an adorable kitten.
I love the concept. However, I only liked the book.
While the idea behind it is clever, Samsa’s becoming a kitten somehow led to the inclusion of a section where Samsa ventures out of the family’s apartment and into the dark underworld of other people who’ve also become cats. Kafka’s original novel takes place entirely within the confines of the apartment, and manages to say a lot more about family and society by staying in those walls. “The Meowmorphosis” strives to become a gonzo meta-fiction, by sending Samsa out into the world to get caught up in a storyline that has many (MANY) familiar echoes of Kafka’s “The Trial.”
It’s a tribute to Kafka, really. With Kittens.
That said, it’s a decent read, though it pales in comparison to some of Quirk’s other entries to the mashup genre. (I still hold “Android Karenina” dear to my heart, and in truth the 3rd book in the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” trilogy is one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read. It’s like a Jane Austen movie with zombies, ninjas, and society women with swords. Unstoppable!)
If Kafka is your homeboy, you’ll probably enjoy this book more than I did. I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of references and twists that are pulled from his works that I didn’t catch. That said, at it’s basest form, the book is interesting enough to be a good read, if not a great one.
**UPDATE: Dear Readers — I am a moron, and the list of events I was using was from 2004. I know, right? So, please ignore what used to be posted here – and please visit the very up to date and super official Chicago Tribune schedule for Printer’s Row Book Fair 2011. Where you can find an ACTUAL schedule for THIS year’s event. Totally my bad. Blame my pregnant brain.**
Richard Louv’s ground-breaking 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods” discussed the separation of young people from nature, caused by a variety of factors: schools eliminating recess, an obsession with being connected to technology, and scaredy-cat parents who assume their child playing outside will result in them being kidnapped by perverts (among other reasons) An expanded and updated version of the book was released in 2008, and that’s the book I picked up at Borders.
As one who’s about to become a parent, and one who grew up in a rural area where nature was just part of life, the idea that my kids will be more in love with their computers than the great outdoors is disturbing to me. From an early age growing up in Northern Michigan, I knew deer and foxes and yes, even bears. I remember collecting frogs at the pond beside my Grandma’s house, and climbing trees at my Mom’s farm surrounded by horses and dogs and cats and cows. Though I’m a semi-tech-savvy lady now, I still cling to these memories and find myself downright cranky in the winter months in Chicago when going outside is more like entering a war zone than a relaxing nature walk.
Louv’s book is really smart. He stresses the importance of a connection to nature for our kids – a point I doubt anyone can really disagree with.
Here’s a couple of really interesting points from the book.
“Something else was different when we were young: our parents were outdoors. I’m not saying they were joining health clubs and things of that sort, but they were out of the house, out on the porch, talking to neighbors. As far as physical fitness goes, today’s kids are the sorriest generation in the history of the United States. Their parents may be out jogging, but the kids just aren’t outside.” – A parent interviewed for the book.
“I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s’ where all the electrical outlets are.” – A 4th grader interviewed for the book.
I was fascinated by the book and would recommend it for any parent or parent-to-be. Whether or not you agree, a lot of really valid points are raised – How national parks are becoming increasingly safer and shiny and Disney-fied, so much so that when kids arrive these places after having seen the glossy brochures, they’re let down that it’s not more perfect. Our kids complain they’re bored when they’re connected a hundred ways to the all-powerful internet and surrounded by stimulus all the time – simply because they don’t have to work for anything anymore. Nothing requires imagination. American schools are eliminating recess in favor of cramming more and more information into the heads of young people so they can do better on standardized tests – to what effect? (Did you know, in Finland, kids don’t enter any school until age 7?) A handful of exceptional schools are beginning to stress the importance of the outside world in education by green-ing their schoolyards, planting gardens with the students, and taking them on nature trips so the young folks can learn to relate to their world. What good is a high test score if you’re completely naive to the world around you?
A few cities are called out for their attempts to put nature back in the front lines – San Diego and Chicago, mainly. Chicago’s particular emphasis on parks such as Lincoln Park and Millennium Park are lauded, though it’s admitted that much more could be done. Even in giant city parks, animals are scarce and children still can’t really roam free out of parental gaze.
“Last Child in the Woods” is a solid piece of research, and a surprisingly entertaining non-fiction read. The 2008 edition also includes a field guide for how to put some of these ideas into practice – and discussion questions for book clubs. Great read – pick it up!
Of course, I’m turning to books for a great deal of information. Obviously, there’s a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” on my nightstand, and I’ve been picking up interesting pregnancy/parenting books as they catch my attention.
“The Modern Girl’s Guide to Motherhood” is a basic encyclopedia of everything you didn’t know you needed to know about becoming a Mom.
And it’s horrifying. The end.
Apparently, I’m not going to get 8 hours of sleep for the next few years of my life. Spectacular. (When that time comes, dear readers, forgive me if I stop being coherent and slack even more when it comes to using the spell check.)
I finished reading this immediately after reading Stephen King’s ”Salem’s Lot” and have to admit – this was scarier. From the amount of things you need to buy to the amount of things you’re just supposed to know, Motherhood (at least for a pregnant lady) is an incredibly overwhelming concept. I’m fully aware that in 4 months my pregnancy will end and I’ll be responsible for a living, breathing, puking, burping, pooping person.
Jane Buckingham has obviously been there, and hands down her advice with a no-nonsense attitude. The book is full of lists such as “Things you NEED before the baby arrives,” “Things it’s NICE to have before the baby arrives,” and “Things Not Necessary to have before baby arrives.” She’s also got pages devoted to Mommy’s post-delivery recovery, breaking bad habits, teaching manners, breast-feeding, and even addresses a few pages to introducing your new baby to your pets. Buckingham is funny – even snarky – about many aspects of this life-changing process, and even includes a few tips that, though she’d never tried and doesn’t know anyone who has, are recommended by experts – so hey, maybe they’ll work for you.
All in all, I’d buy this as a gift for the next mommy-to-be of my friends.
And now I have to go make lists, thank you very much.
So of COURSE I watched “2010: Moby Dick” when I realized it was a) a real movie that actually existed, and b) streamed on Netflix. My love for books is only rivaled by my love for adaptations of books, and this seemed like it was going to be a train wreck.
Train wreck, indeed.
Barry Bostwick (Brad from “Rocky Horror” if you needed a reminder) and Renee O’Connor (who was apparently on “Xena: Warrior Princess”) star in this low-budget sci-fi adaptation of Melville’s novel. Here, Ahab is the Captain of the U.S.S. Peaquod, which has been charged with tracking down the legendary 500 foot whale that’s been collapsing ships all over the world. The crew of the Peaquod grabs Doctor Michelle Herman (O’Connor) and tosses her into their submarine as they venture out looking for the whale.
Friends, I have to tell you – The first line of Melville’s “Moby Dick” is the narrator, Ishmael, saying simply, “Call me Ishmael.” Dr. Michelle is introduced listening to the sounds of whales on headphones. Her trusty assistant calls to her a few times – “Doc!” She removes her headphones and replies… “Call me Michelle.”
I snorted. Seriously.
The grand conclusion features some of the worst computer effects I’ve seen in a long time. In addition, Barry Bostwick’s big climactic moment comes when he takes off on an inflatable boat toward Moby Dick, armed with a gun that may be a spray-painted Super Soaker. This is, of coure, after he replaces his (once again) blown off leg with a cross from an old leper colony. Of course, when he finally charges the whale, it appears his leg has been restored to totally normal and there’s no trace of the wooden leg.
It’s really campy, really bad, but actually quite fun. I’m not going to lie – It wasn’t a waste of 90 minutes of my life.
“Under the Dome” is a beast of a book. Clocking in around 900 pages, I was made once again grateful that I was reading it on a Kindle as opposed to trying to fit it into my purse and haul it during my commute to and from work. I’m largely grateful for this, because I would have gone crazy had I been forced to leave the book at home – because it’s really, really, really good. Like, the kind of book you can’t stop thinking about and can’t wait to return to once you’ve set it down for the night.
Chester’s Mill, Maine is a pretty typical small town – populated by generally nice enough, hardworking folks who (most of the time) get along and are presided over by a somewhat shady local government who may or may not have their hands in some dirty projects. Typical, right? There’s one main restaurant where most people get their socializing and eating done – and it’s from this restaurant that a hero emerges, in the form of a cook named Dale Barbara (known as “Barbie.”)
Barbie is one of the first to realize the giant, earth-stopping event that has taken place. One day, a week or so before Halloween, a giant unbreakable dome appeared over the town. As it first appears, a woodchuck is cut in half and a plane crashes and falls from the sky, both affected by a sudden wall that wasn’t there before. Soon, cars and people are running/crashing into the dome all over the place, the government is alerted, and panic happens. The residents of Chester’s Mill can’t get out, and no one can get in. Despite the outside government’s help – and some Presidential orders from Mr. Obama himself – the citizens of Chester’s Mill are on their own. A loathsome and crooked politician named Big Jim Rennie steps up, appoints local kids (including his murderous son) to positions as policemen, and all hell breaks loose. There are suicides, murders, rapes, riots, and anything else terrible that can happen under the sun as people react to being trapped in an unbreakable dome with only the supplies contained within the town.
Big Jim’s local “deputies” run amuck, doing whatever they want without considering anything else other than the power they’ve all been entrusted with. On the flip side, Barbie and his group of followers realize the danger the townspeople are all in, as the Dome provides a great deal of problems. Namely, that the pollutants the people are releasing into the air from gasoline, propane, and just general life-stuff can’t get out of the Dome’s walls.
Stephen King, you’re the man. A tip of the hat to you.
What Mr. King does brilliantly within the confines of this massive and complicated book is humanize the people trapped inside. In addition to our hero (Barbie) and our ultimate villain (Big Jim Rennie) we meet over thirty other people trapped inside, from preachers to kids to cops to widows to the plucky lady who runs the town newspaper. Each of them have layered stories, and each of them are worth reading about. Even the bad guys are fascinating, as a mob mentality sets in and martial law takes over.
Now, I can’t say a whole lot about The Dome itself without spoiling the ending of this book, but I will say this; At about the halfway point of the book, I started to worry if – after reading ALL these pages – the ending was going to be satisfying. Mr. King is one of my favorite authors of all time, but his endings are 50/50. (For every “Carrie” there’s an “It.” And don’t get me started on how pi$$ed I was at the ending of “Gerald’s Game.”) I’m pleased as punch to say that “Under the Dome” has an ending that, though it appears to finally happen in the last couple pages (when you think there’s going to be no resolution at all) is satisfying. There’s no cop-out ending, no cheap reliance on “aliens” or “terrorists.” It’s much more deep than that, and makes a great deal of sense when you look at the book as a whole and what it says about people and how societies work.
“Under the Dome” is a super book, and one I’m hitting myself for waiting so long to read.
I’m sure someday it will be made into a movie, or fifty-part miniseries. Honestly, I can’t wait.