Monthly Archives: September 2013

12) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Book One of the Fairyland stories

By: Catherynne M. Valente

Date Finished: 09.15.2013

by Catherynne M. Valente

He’s such a lot of bother.  You’re better off — theatrical folk are nothing but a bundle of monologues and anxiety headaches.

Even when one finds oneself in Fairyland and not at home at all, it is not always so easy to remember to catch the world in its changing and change with it.

I have tried to be a generous narrator and care for my girl as best I can.  I cannot help that readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.

Children’s literature is complete.

Everything that happened before this point only served to pave the way for this book and I cannot imagine how any future book could surpass it.  While there is still a short list of other books I consider flawless, this is the pinnacle of storytelling.  It hearkens back to an older style of children’s lit with more danger and more heightened language.  This is not a quick read and it’s not exactly an easy read, but the language is immeasurably beautiful.  By today’s standards, this is solidly Young Adult fiction, although I imagine the emotional impact was greater reading as an adult.

I won’t summarize the plot because we’re all intimately familiar with it.  Comparisons to other books are obvious (Valente even mentions them directly in interviews and indirectly in the book), but I won’t cheapen the majesty of this book by mentioning the others by name.  The point of Fairyland is not an original plot, but the subtle, almost psychological deviations from those ingrained structures.  Valente is extremely savvy in the way she subverts conventions with her self-referential narrator* and a main character that carries some knowledge of narrative requirements into Fairyland, being an avid reader herself.

And forget about mechanics — the imagery is simply the loveliest.**

There is a deep sense of theatricality to the book.  I knew from the first chapter title, “Exeunt on a Leopard” that Valente had worked in a theatre at some point (sure enough, according to her online bio, she was an actress for at least a short time).  There are a few other distinctly theatre references, but more than that, the tone has a showman’s quality.  Think a heavy velvet curtain and musty footlights.  Think colorful costumes and elaborate scenery.  It’s bright and larger than life, but captivates you, making you utterly believe in magic.  Some of the narration even gives the reader a bit of a backstage tour.  It’s as if Valente shows us a few ropes and pulleys while reserving the most impressive smoke and mirror secrets for herself.  It’s devilishly crafty and I can’t get enough of it.

One and a half complaints (I know, by now you’re thinking I’ve lost the ability to be critical) and they pertain to a few of the names.  The main character is named September.  Now, this oddball name works splendidly in Fairyland, but it’s hard to reconcile it with what we know of her parents and her life in Omaha.  I also had difficulty recognizing this as a person’s name even far into the book (although I do enjoy that I ended up reading this in the month of September).  My half complaint is that a friend she makes there is named Saturday.  I have no problem with this being his name except that it’s paired with September.  To have a month and a day of the week both beginning with the letter ‘S’ used together as proper names was about as confusing as the sentence I just created.  But September’s a perfectly perfect protagonist and well deserving of our love, so we shall forgive this inconvenience, yes?

At the end of the day: The book I’ve been waiting for my entire life

*a la The Eyes of the Dragon***

**The Night Circus*** is the only viable competitor in the imagery contest.

***I know I said I wouldn’t make comparisons, but these are not plot-related, rather tone-related, so I deem this acceptable.

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11) The Little Prince

By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Date Finished: 09.03.13

by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey.”

“In one of the stars I shall be living.  In one of them I shall be laughing.  And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… You — only you — will have stars
that can laugh.”

Regrettably, I do not remember enough French to have read this in its original language.  But even in English it was a lovely book.  It’s an odd little story of a boy’s travels across several small asteroids ultimately landing him on Earth.  Just as the Little Prince is preparing to return to his home, he encounters our unnamed narrator — a young man who had grown up more than he intended.  The narrator had been a very imaginative child, but gave up on his artistic pursuits after discouraging reactions from the grown-ups.  Meeting the Little Prince reawakens his creative spirit so that he can determine what’s truly a matter of great importance.

There are a number of nonsensical elements, as one might expect in a children’s book, that fill the pages with charm and magic.  The imagery is marvelous, especially with illustrations worked into the plot.  It’s a quick read and an enchanting journey to follow.  Scenes flow seamlessly and while I do think a bit of the magic fell through the cracks of translation, the style really is superb.  There’s not much else to say without giving away plot, except to agree that it certainly deserves its place among enduring literature.  And if you want a spoiler-free taste of the story, I think the dedication will tell you all you need to know:

The Little Prince dedication

At the end of the day: For me

7-10) Percy Jackson and the Olympians

The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Curse of the Titan, The Battle of the Labyrinth, & The Last Olympian

By: Rick Riordan

Date Finished: 08.09.13

by Rick Riordan

“You deal with mythological stuff for a few years, you learn that paradises are usually the places where you get killed.” (The Battle of the Labyrinth)

“I love New York.  You can pop out of the Underworld in Central Park, hail a taxi, head down Fifth Avenue with a giant hellhound loping along behind you, and nobody even looks at you funny.”
(The Last Olympian)

Percy Jackson isn’t a bad kid, but a combination of dyslexia, ADHD, and apparent bad luck has resulted in him getting kicked out of every school he’s attended.  His main goal is to survive sixth grade without getting ejected, but after an attempt on his life by a teacher that no one seems to recognize, he becomes understandably distracted.  The strangeness keeps increasing as Percy’s best friend manages to bring him to Camp Half-Blood, a summer training camp for demigods.  Percy finds out the Greek gods still exist, having followed Western civilization to New York City, and still do what they’ve always done — have affairs with mortals and produce a bunch of half-god offspring they can barely keep track of.  Not only did the gods survive, but the same monsters reappear to wreck new havoc.  As the son of a god, Percy is pulled into this world of gods and monsters that is invisible to mortals.  And it seems that trouble is stirring for Olympus with Percy, as usual, unintentionally in the middle of it.

This series is characterized by a beautiful sarcasm and self-awareness of the absurdity of the situations.  Especially in the beginning, Percy (and his friends) tend to win battles by sheer dumb luck and tenacity.  Their skills increase as the books progress and the challenges become more difficult, but Percy retains a endearing kind of cluelessness.  The amazing thing about this series is that even though Percy is the main character/first person narrator, it’s not really The Percy Show.  All the characters make unique contributions to the story and there are plenty of battles Percy would have lost without his friends.  There are a number of climactic and decisive victories that belong to other characters, even ones who are generally painted in a bad light.  It is refreshing to find a series that spreads the wealth so well.

Let’s talk about other things Rick Riordan does extremely right:

1) Each book features a different group of questers.  While there is a distinct trio of heroes, they are often separated.  Many times, there are rivalries among traveling companions, adding another layer of difficulty to the quest and increased curiosity in how things will develop.  Each book therefore explores a distinctly different dynamic and prevents the series from becoming repetitive.

2) Modernization of the Greek myths.  It’s possible to enjoy these books with only a minimal knowledge of the myths, although there is extra delight for those that recognize the stories.  There were a number of characters/scenarios that I wasn’t familiar with, but my ignorance didn’t hinder my understanding of the books.  And with the myths I knew well, it was thrilling to see how they were translated into the world we live in.  Riordan did an excellent job explaining his allusions in a way that was easy to understand, but didn’t inhibit the plot.

3) Chapter titles and similarly wry humor.  The first chapter of The Lightning Thief is called “In Which I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher.”  And they only get better.  Some of my favorites are “Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death,” “Everybody Hates Me but the Horse,” and “The Underworld Sends Me a Prank Call.”  (Okay, really I could go on forever).  Even in the midst of very real danger, Percy reacts with an undercutting humor that matches the brilliance of the chapter titles.  Take for example the first line of The Last Olympian: “The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the roof of my car.”  Lines like this are the rule, not the exception and keep the books from getting too heavy while the events become increasingly darker.

At the end of the day: Practically perfect in every way. 

(In case anyone noticed, I only counted this as four books because I had previously read The Lightning Thief.  Let it be known that there is logic in my miscalculation.)

6) The Book Thief

By: Markus Zusak

Date Finished: 07.22.13

by Markus Zusak

As a witness to all the worst atrocities throughout history, Death is looking for some, well, humanity in humanity.  Death himself finds hope in the story of a young girl living in Nazi Germany at the precipice of World War II.  Liesel Meminger is sent away from home to live with foster parents, gentle Hans and roaring Rosa Huberman.  She is grieving for her brother and doesn’t understand the fear gripping her country, but she is a fighter and takes to her new life with a fierce fearlessness.  She finds power in the written word and her love affair with books shapes her relationship with the entire town, earning her the respect of many.  In a time when kindness is a dangerous quality, the books give her an escape from the terrors around her and hope for something better.

This book is truly a masterpiece.  Zusak doesn’t mask the horror of the times, but it is at its heart a story of hope and goodness.  It helps that the events are seen from a child’s perspective.  Liesel doesn’t understand the politics happening around her; she just knows enough to navigate interactions with people in her neighborhood.  As she gets older, she learns more about what the government is doing and must come to terms with her place in it all.  She carries much weight on her shoulders, but retains a child-like naivety and sense of justice that is beautiful.  With Death as the narrator, there’s an even further degree of separation.  He has no influence on the events, therefore no investment in them, and a has much more impassive view on death in general (naturally).  Death also has no need to stick to conventional storytelling techniques, so the foreshadowing tends to be very direct (“if so-and-so had made a different choice, he wouldn’t have died so young” — that sort of thing).  Zusak is careful not to overuse this power, making the moments of blatant foreshadowing a success.  So while it is a dark story by necessity, the narration of Liesel + Death provide a perfect perspective.

Formatting also plays a major role in this book.  It is divided into several parts, each part with a unique title, featuring a list of seemingly unconnected phrases.  These phrases turn into chapters (sometimes the chapter title is pulled directly from the list, but not always) and a logic emerges.  Within the text, there are short interruptions that relate to the story, but break the rhythm of the paragraphs.  These are bolded, centered, given wide margins, and titled.  The titles serve as an introduction: “A SMALL FACT” or “REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT” or “A DEFINITION” etc. with very few (if any) repeated phrases.  The fact or definition or whatever is briefly given and the story continues in its regularly formatted programming.  While these break away pieces disrupt the flow of the story, they also enhance it in a rather fascinating way.

This captivating storytelling would be nothing without a good story to back it up.  I haven’t read or watched much about Nazi Germany outside of class assignments, so the majority of my exposure follows the plights of the Jews in Concentration Camps.  The Book Thief gives a different tale — the plight of an average German family who is trying to survive without surrendering to the Fuhrer.  This book explores the need for compromises in public and private rebellions to preserve their convictions.  More than that, it’s the chronicle of a town’s life.  It’s the story of inseparable friends, of shifting alliances, and of deep-rooted rivalries.  All the characters that comprise the town have specific beliefs, quirks, and ingrained patterns.  As the war draws nearer, patterns begin to break down in fascinating and deeply realistic ways.  And it’s Liesel with her books that hold what’s left together.

At the end of the day: Really, really for me