Apr 30, 2007

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

I think all my problems with Narnia come from the fact that I discovered it too late. I didn’t have much contact at all with fantasy as a child. It was only in my late teens that I became the avid reader of fantasy that I am now, and I was 19 when I read my first Narnia book.

I’d be the last person to say that you can only enjoy fantasy (or children’s books in general) as a child. Still, it’s undeniable that certain things have a greater impact on you when you’re young. The world seems bigger, and stories feel bigger too, perhaps because you’re small. I still have the old, battered copy of Gods, Men and Monsters from the Greek Myths by Michael Gibson that I’d read and reread again and again as a child. Then, for days, my mind would be populated by nothing but the Greek gods and goddesses. I’d daydream about being Artemis and running through the forest with stags and nymphs by my side. I’d daydream about being Athena, wise and passionate and fair. While I’m sure I’d still love Greek mythology if I’d discovered it later in life (as I did the other pantheons), I’m also sure its impact on me wouldn’t have been the same, and, as a consequence, I myself wouldn’t be the same.

Likewise, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the Narnia books a lot more if I’d discovered them as a child. After all, they feature normal children like I was at the time entering a fantasy world and living wonderful adventure, and is there a child who doesn’t delight in that? I would have spent days and days daydreaming about Narnia. I would have made up magic worlds for myself.

But because I discovered them too late, I cannot overlook the things that irk me about these books, and so I cannot bring myself to enjoy them. Neil Gaiman’s words on Narnia explain the way I feel about it better than I could:
For good or ill the religious allegory, such as it was, went entirely over my head, and it was not until I was about twelve that I found myself realising that there were Certain Parallels. Most people get it at the Stone Table; I got it when it suddenly occurred to me that the story of the events that occurred to Saint Paul on the road to Damascus was the dragoning of Eustace Scrubb all over again. I was personally offended: I felt that an author, whom I had trusted, had had a hidden agenda. I had nothing against religion, or religion in fiction -- I had bought (in the school bookshop) and loved The Screwtape Letters, and was already dedicated to G.K. Chesterton. My upset was, I think, that it made less of Narnia for me, it made it less interesting a thing, less interesting a place.
Even though I’m not Christian, it’s not the use of Christian ideas in the books that I dislike. What I dislike is the fact that I can’t get over the feeling that the only reason these stories exist at all is to convey those ideas. For that reason, the whole world of Narnia seems less real, and the stories don’t really drag me in.

Neil Gaiman says another thing I find interesting:
C.S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. He made me aware of the writer, that there was someone standing behind the words, that there was someone telling the story. I fell in love with the way he used parentheses -- the auctorial asides that were both wise and chatty, and I rejoiced in using such brackets in my own essays and compositions through the rest of my childhood.
I can see how this conversational way of telling the stories is one of Lewis’ greatest strengths. And as a child, I can see myself delighting in it, imagining a grandparent-like figure talking directly to me, telling the story to me, personally, and to nobody else. But these days I can’t say I enjoy it – every time the narrator makes a comment, I am reminded that the story is not real, and it’s yet another thing that keeps me from getting into it. I can't help but find his asides far too intrusive.

About this book specifically, there were things I liked. The description of the Underground Kingdom, for example, and the appeal of a land of wonders that remains unexplored. It filled me with a very particular sense of longing that only fantasy can awaken – the longing for distant times and places that one can never reach. But there were also things I disliked – above all, the way the main characters kept getting themselves into dangerous situations without realizing it. They were children, yes, but I think most children would be smarter and more perceptive than that.

I suppose it’s stubborn of me to keep reading Narnia if I can’t enjoy it, but I vowed to finish the series, and I want to do it still. And I had hope that I’d enjoy this book, because the previous one, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, was my favourite by far. But I can’t say I liked this one, and it saddens me. It saddens me mostly because I can see the merits of these books, I can see what makes them so appealing, and I feel like there’s this big secret behind them that I can’t be let into.

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Becky's Book Reviews
Dolce Belleza
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Where do books come from?

Chris over at "Stuff as Dreams are Made On" asked a very interesting question - where do books come from? I have an ever-increasing "to be read" list, but I actually have to stop for a moment and think before I can answer this question.

A while ago I noticed that sometimes, after a title had been on my list for a long time, I couldn't remember where I'd heard about it for the first time. Lately I've been adding that information between brackets after the book title, because knowing where I heard of that book helps me remember why I decided I wanted to read it in the first place.

My "auto-buy" authors are definitely Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. There are other authors whose work I want to read in its entirety, but I still have to catch up with their back catalogue, so I'm less concerned with their latest releases. These include Ursula K. Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones and Douglas Coupland, for example.

As for "chocolate authors", there's a Portuguese series for children by an author called Álvaro Magalhães that I began to read when I was 10 or so, and I still find myself reading it at 24. Over time, I began to realize that the books are somewhat predictable and not exactly brilliantly written, but something makes me come back to them anyway. It's an adventure series, in the style of Enid Blyton's "The Famous Five", except it involves some elements of fantasy and mythology - in my favourite book of the series, the three main characters discover a cult to the Hindu goddess Kali operating in their city's underground tunnels and sewers. In another, they discover a modern day Egyptian-like pyramid where millennium-old curses still come to be. My childhood was, sadly, most deprived of fantasy, but reading books like these satisfied a longing I wasn't even aware of. And so, perhaps out of gratitude, I still buy the latest title of this series whenever it comes out.

But I digress. Back to the original question - Where do books come from?

Neil Gaiman's blog is certainly a valuable resource for me. I discovered SO many of my current favourites because of Neil. In fact, there's a section in my "to be read" list titled "Neil recommends", and it includes titles like "Lud in the Mist" by Hope Mirrlees (which I'm planning on reading for the "Once Upon a Time" challenge), "Little Big" by John Crowley, or Victoria Walker's "The Winter of Enchantment".

I'm new to the blog world, but my "to be read" list has honestly doubled in the last few weeks because of it. Thanks to the "Once Upon a Time" reviews I've heard of books I'd never heard of before, and many sound extremely interesting.

Then there are Amazon's listmanias and recommendations, thanks to which I've discovered many books. And of course, there's also recommendations from friends.

Also, when I see an author I don't know praising a book I love, I tend to check that author out. That's how I discovered Philip Pullman, for example - because he praised Coraline. I also discovered A. S. Byatt thanks to her blurbs on the Discworld books.

Message Boards where books are discussed are useful as well. I often see people discussing a book so passionately that it makes me want to read it as well.

I also like book browsing, both at bookstores and at libraries. I'd much rather own a book than read a library copy, but since I can't afford to buy all the books I'd like to read, the library comes in handy. Sometimes, if I don't know what to read next, I just go to the library and grab whatever catches my eye. Of course, this technique is hit or miss.

Finally, the Endicott Studio reading list and book reviews have helped me discover many wonderful books.

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Apr 29, 2007

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

I was given this book last Christmas, and it had been sitting on my shelf ever since. Somehow, even though I love Diana Wynne Jones, I hadn't really felt like picking it up. But I’m very glad this challenge finally gave me the motivation to do so. Diana Wynne Jones is a master storyteller. Her characters are loveable and her plots are wonderfully woven, and this book doesn't disappoint.

Castle in the Air is a sequel to the wonderful Howl's Moving Castle, but it’s not a direct sequel. The two books are related in a less obvious way than one would expect. In fact, you don't need to have read Howl's Moving Castle to understand and enjoy this story, though you will probably get more out of it if you have.

This book introduces us to Abdullah, a modest carpet-seller in the Arabian-like city of Zanzib. Abdullah spends his time daydreaming of a different life in which he is a lost prince who goes on adventures. One day, when a mysterious stranger sells him a magic carpet, he begins to live the adventures he had made up for himself. He meets and falls in love with Flower-in-the-Night, but she is stolen by a djinn before his very eyes. He decides to rescue her, of course, and soon enough, he finds himself transported to the land of Ingary (where the story of Howl's Moving Castle took place), and with a sneaky soldier, a grumpy genie in a bottle, and two cats for company.

Familiar characters from Howl's Moving Castle only appear about two thirds into the book, but the way this is done is absolutely brilliant. And by then, Abdullah had become as familiar and as dear to me as the characters from her previous books.

One of the things I love the most about Diana Wynne Jones is the fact that her tone is humorous, but not silly. When she makes a joke, it’s never at the expense of the story itself. If there’s one thing I dislike, it’s when a story is told in a jocose tone that implies that the story itself, the characters and everything being described is nothing but a little bit of silliness. Diana Wynne Jones manages to be light and humorous without doing this at all – her tone reminds me of that of J. R. R. Tolkien in The Hobbit, for example.

Another thing I love is how well she weaves her plots. At the end she picks up every little thread and ties it up perfectly, and suddenly the significance of things you didn’t even realized that mattered fully hits you. This book is no exception. It’s a book where details matter, where observant readers will feel rewarded, and more distracted ones, like myself, will want to re-read it as soon as they’ve finished it. I plan on reading this book again in the next few months, because I can only imagine how enjoyable it will be to see story unfold bit by bit once one has access to the information that is only provided at the end. And more than this I cannot say. I’ll only add that, like the rest of Diana Wynne Jones’ work, this is a book I highly recommend.

Other Blog Reviews:
Everyday Reads

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Apr 27, 2007

Memorable Book Quotes #1

According to my father, my mother's father had no hair anywhere on his body. He owned a farm in the country, where he lived with his wife, bedridden by then for ten years, unable to feed herself or talk, and he rode a great horse, as big as any horse there was, and black, with a spot of white on each of its legs just above the hooves.

He adored my mother. He had told amazing stories about her since she was little, and now that he was old and had lost some of his mind, it appeared that he had begun to believe them.

He thought she hung the moon. He actually believed this from time to time. He believed the moon wouldn't have been there but that she'd hung it. He believed the stars were wishes, and that one day they would all come true. For her, his daughter. He had told her this when she was little to make her happy, and now that he was old he believed it, because it made him happy and because he was so very old.
Daniel Wallace, Big Fish

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Apr 26, 2007

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

“Fairy Tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
- G. K. Chesterton
I really love this quote, which can be found at the start of Coraline. I think it sums up what Coraline achieves rather perfectly: like the best fairy tales, this story is unsettling, but also comforting in a way. By materializing our nameless fears, by giving them a name and a palpable existence, it manages to dispel them somehow.

Coraline is a short book, and it tells the story of a young girl who goes through a door in her house that had been hiding nothing but a brick wall before. What she finds on the other side looks exactly like her own house at first. There, her Other Parents greet her. They look just like her parents, except they have big black buttons for eyes. Little by little, Coraline begins to realize she’s gotten herself into a very dangerous situation, and that to get out of it she can only rely on herself, and on the occasional help of a talking black cat.

It had been far too long since I’d last read this book. So long, in fact, that I had even forgotten all about the wonderful Mouse Song! There’s nothing like the joy of revisiting a favourite author, and it’s particularly nice when their work manages to be even better than you remembered.

I realized something I hadn’t realized before: this book is the prototype of my concept of what a Neil Gaiman book is. The voice he uses in this book is particularly Neil. Until now, I wouldn’t usually recommend it to people as an introduction to his work, but I think I’m going to from now on.

There are many things I love about this book, so if I were to name them all this post would be much too long. But just to name a few, I love the black cat - I love how he manages to embody the very essence of catness. The scene where Coraline is holding the tense cat could only have been written by someone who knows cats very well indeed. I also love how things in this book are creepy in just the right amount. The sense of wrongness on the Other House is subtle at first, and it increases over time, but it’s never over the top, and it manages to be even more disturbing exactly for that reason. And of course, I love Coraline herself. She’s clever and wise beyond her age, and she shows us that courage is not the lack of fear, but rather the determination to not let fear paralyse us.

Last but not least, I love Dave Mckean’s wonderful illustrations:

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Another thing I had forgotten was that this book had blurbs by three of my favourite authors: Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones. And then I remembered that it was exactly because of his blurb in this book that I decided to start reading Philip Pullman. It reminded me of what Carl V. said in a recent post of his: I can track so much of what I love these days back to Neil Gaiman.

I recommend that you all visit the wonderful Mousecircus if you haven’t already. There you can listen to Neil Gaiman reading the first chapter of Coraline, and I guarantee that it’ll be very much worth your time.

Finally, I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am about the upcoming Henry Selick movie adaptation!

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Rhinoa's Ramblings
Biblio Addict
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Apr 25, 2007

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card

When I picked this book up, all I knew about it was that it was a retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" that also used some motifs from Russian folklore. This is what I’d read a long time ago at some place or other, but it’s not actually a very accurate description of the book.

This story picks up where "Sleeping Beauty" left off, and it drew my attention to something I’d noticed before, but hadn’t really reflected on. In Russian folktales, unlike in those of some other traditions, marriage is often not the finalization of the story. On the contrary, it’s often where the problems begin. In tales like “The Footless and Blind Champions”, Ivan Tsaverich manages to marry the princess quite easily, but he still has to go a long way to win her love and trust. This is analogous to what happens in Enchantment. And as I soon realized, this book draws on Russian folklore far more heavily than I had imagined, so it was the perfect follow-up to the Russian Folktales collection I’ve read recently.

Enchantment starts when the hero, Ivan Smetski, is ten years old. While his family is spending some time at a cousin’s farm in the Ukrainian countryside, Ivan takes to walking through the surrounding old forests. And one day, he comes across a sight he can’t get out of his mind: a clearing in the forest, and in it, a chasm, surrounding a pedestal where a Princess sleeps among fallen leaves. Ivan feels something stirring in the chasm and runs away. His family immigrates to America to escape the Soviet Union. Ivan grows up, but what he saw that day in the forest stays at the back of his mind. So when he returns to his native Ukraine, as a Folklore scholar doing research, he cannot help but to go back to the forest and kiss the Princess awake. And that’s when the story begins – he suddenly finds himself transported to her kingdom, a 9th century Slavic kingdom, one of the many whose history is lost in his time.

I have a great fascination for all things Slavic, and so this book delighted me. The languages, the myths, the folktales, the history. I think part of the reason why they draw me so much is the fact that they are involved in the mist of mystery. Unfortunately there isn’t much certainty concerning the early history of these people, and most of their myths have been lost, and, as always, the less you know about something, the more you want to know. This book was deeply satisfying because it gave me a fictional tale that was as pleasing, if not more, as knowing the real story itself might have been. It transported me to a 9th century Slavic Kingdom, where old Pagan rites and gods lived side by side with early Christianity, and it gave me a detailed feel of what it must have been to live there.

Naturally, I liked the parts of the book that took place in the kingdom of Taina better than the ones that took place in our time, but I also really liked how Ivan and Princess Katerina’s relationship began to really develop once they went back to his world.

Along with Russian folklore, Orson Scott Card also used a little bit of Jewish lore, and I found that very interesting. But back to Russian lore, the old Slavic deities in the book were very interesting. I tried to find out more about Mikola Mozhaiski, but all I could find through google were references to this book (and a minor spoiler). I’m not sure if he’s a real Slavic deity or if he was made up. The way Baba Yaga is portrayed is interesting as well, but I find that in Russian folklore she’s more of an ambiguous character – helpful wise woman sometimes, evil crone other times – and I think I prefer her like that. But the way the origin of the tales about her is explained, especially the hut with the chicken legs, is nothing short of brilliant.

And now a little something that isn’t exactly relevant for my review of this book, so feel free to skip it. For a long time, I was hesitant to read Orson Scott Card. For such a long time, in fact, that when I picked up this book I couldn’t quite remember where my initial reluctance came from. But as I was reading, it was there at the back of my mind, and so I finally decided to look it up.

It turns out I was hesitant for ideological reasons. First of all, I think it’s important to say that I would never dismiss an artist just because their religious, political or general ideological views didn’t coincide with mine. When it comes to books, though, more-so than in music or other forms of art, I think that the author’s worldview tends to permeate his work, both intentionally and non-intentionally. And with worldviews come assumptions about life, and if I’m reading a book in which there are assumptions that are difficult for me to understand or relate to, it can get in the way of my enjoyment of it. I love stories for themselves – for me, stories are stories first, and the fact that they might or might not transmit some sort of message comes second. But for the aforementioned reasons, I can’t help but to enjoy the work of authors like Philip Pullman, Ursula K. Le Guin or Terry Pratchett more than the work of, say, Ezra Pound.

Orscon Scott Card himself has explained what I'm trying to say better than I could:
There's always moral instruction whether the writer inserts it deliberately or not. The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that which is consciously inserted. Partly because it won't reflect the storyteller's true beliefs, it will only reflect what he BELIEVES he believes, or what he thinks he should believe or what he's been persuaded of.

But when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don't even think to question, that you don't even notice-- those will show up. And that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral machinations.
Now, his political and religious views are very different from my own, but that isn’t, of course, the problem. What I half remembered was something specific, and it didn’t take me long to find out what it was. It’s his views on homosexuality that really bother me, and I was reluctant because I was afraid that this prejudice and intolerance would translate into his work somehow.

However, I’m happy to say that Enchantment doesn’t promote discrimination or intolerance in any way – quite the opposite. There was a passing remark connecting homosexuality with men wearing women clothes, but it’s frankly something I wouldn’t have even noticed if I didn’t have this in mind already, so I'm not going to pick on that. This book was deeply human and even moving at times, and so I don’t think I’ll be afraid to read the rest of his work in the future.

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Apr 23, 2007

Once Upon a Time

And with this book, I guess I have officially concluded Quest One from the Once Upon a Time challenge - I've read five folklore books:
  • Brazilian Folktales by Luís da Câmara Cascudo (finished 31/03)
  • Brazilian Native Folktales by Alberto da Costa e Silva (finished 03/04)
  • Myths and Folktales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars by Jeremiah Curtin (finished 14/04)
  • The Book of Dragons by Joseph Nigg (finished 19/04)
  • Portuguese Folktales by Adolfo Coelho (finished 23/04
However, I must confess that when I first joined the challenge I somehow misread the quest, and thought it consisted in reading five books from each of the four sub-genres. This is the goal I set for myself, and this is what I'll do, if time allows.

I'm reading Enchantment by Orscon Scott Card next - I've already started, actually, and I find it delightful so far.

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Portuguese Folk Tales by Adolfo Coelho

Portuguese Folk Tales by Adolfo Coelho

It is almost embarrassing that, being as interested in folk and fairy tales as I am, it took me as long as this to read this fundamental collection from my own country. First published in 1879, this book was essential for the start of Portuguese ethnography, and it was, similarly to the work of the brothers Grimm, intended both as a scholarly work and a collection of tales to be enjoyed by children.

Adolfo Coelho was familiar with the Grimm’s work, but, unlike Teófilo Braga, another of the founders of Portuguese ethnography, he was against the idea of translating their work into Portuguese, reportedly out of fear that it would “contaminate” our folktales. The curious thing is that this collection is full of variations of tales that can be found in the work of the brothers Grimm: there are versions of Snow White, of The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn Fear, of Godfather Death, of Bluebeard (although this version is more similar to the Italian one), of Hansel and Gretel. There’s also a tale very similar to the English The Three Sillies, and, of course, a version of Sleeping Beauty. All this goes to show that perhaps "contamination" is not the way to look at it.

I particularly liked a story that mixed “The Frog Prince” with the northern European legends of the Lindorm: a young prince is under a spell, and the only way to get rid of it is to burn his nine skins – nine frog skins, in this case. I also really liked a tale called “Brancaflor”, which very much reminded me of the tales in the Russian collection I read recently.

But not every story in this collection has a counterpart in other European traditions. Some tales are very much unique, and curiously enough, these were the ones I remembered from my childhood. I have no specific memory of ever having read or been told these tales, and yet they are familiar – entire stories sometimes, only catchphrases or specific moments other times.

Unfortunately I don’t think this collection is available in English, otherwise I’d recommend it to everyone with an interest in folktales, or just in good storytelling. My only complaint is that most stories are very short – only about a page and a half – and you can tell that the same story could be told with more detail, achieving greater narrative tension.

I’m curious to see how this collection compares to Consiglieri Pedroso's.

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Apr 20, 2007

The Book of Dragons and other Mythical Beasts by Joseph Nigg

This lovely little book is divided in four sections: one concerning dragons, and the others concerning mythical beasts of the earth, of the air and of the seas. Furthermore, every other page is a full illustration, so it really is a very fast read.

This book establishes the differences between dragons in the western and eastern cultures quite clearly – while in the West the dragon symbolizes evil, in the East it’s seen as a patient and sapient being.

Beyond this major distinction, the book shows how dragons are portrayed in different mythological and folkloric traditions: Chinese, Indian, Babylonian, Classical, Christian, etc.

The other sections of the book contain some well known fantastic creatures, like the Unicorn, the Gryphon or the Kraken, but also some lesser known ones, like the Cinnamon Bird, the Corocotta or the Rukh. I’d never heard of some of these creatures before, and I was fascinated.

Of course that, this being a small book, there isn’t that much information in it – each creature has one page devoted to it. But the book works really well as an introduction to the world of fantastic beasts, and it also tells you where you can go if you want to know more. There’s a wonderful bibliography at the end of both primary and secondary sources, where you can learn that the Cinnamon Bird was first described in Herodotus, for example, or that Pliny the Elder describes the Yale, the Basilisk and the Manticore. It also gives you a list of Medieval and Renaissance sources.

The many illustrations are quite wonderful, and there’s also a map at the start with the geographical distribution of these beasts, and a genealogical tree mapping their possible origins.

So, even though this book is not very good if you’re looking for detailed information, it's still something I would recommend if you want to spend a couple of pleasant hours having your imagination stimulated.

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Apr 18, 2007

Another challenge!

When I was reading the blogs that are taking part in the Once Upon a Time challenge , I came across another challenge that I cannot resist:

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This challenge is being hosted at Maggie Reads, and I find it a lovely idea. I've always found the American South fascinating, and being a big fan of authors like Truman Capote, John Kennedy Toole or Walker Percy, I'm dying to read more works of Southern fiction.

This challenge will only start on the first of June, so there's plenty of time. Here's my list, which I might change or add to in the future:

1. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
There is absolutely NO excuse for me not having read this book yet, so I'm going to take this chance to change the situation once and for all.

2. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
I've heard a lot about this book, so I'm going to finally find out what the fuss is all about. From what I've heard, I think I'll like it quite a lot.

3. The Watermelon King by Daniel Wallace
Daniel Wallace is best known for "Big Fish", the book that was wonderfully adapted to the big screen by Tim Burton. I read the book after I'd seen the movie, and, for the first time in my life, I found myself liking a movie better than the book that had inspired it. It was only when I decided to compare the two for my Literature and Cinema course in university that I came to really appreciate Daniel Wallace. "Big Fish" is a small book, so a lot of what we see on the screen is missing, but it's wonderful in its own way. The writing is superb, and Daniel Wallace's magic realism is of a brand I'm particularly fond of. The book I'm picking for this challenge, "The Watermelon King", also takes place in the fictional Alabama town of Ashton. I've been meaning to read it for over a year, and so I'll use this challenge as an excuse to finally do it.

And now, allow me to present a List of suggestions for the challenge. These are books I've already read, and I want to use the challenge to discover new things, so I won't put them on my list. But still, they'd be perfect choices, so here's the list in case some of you are still not quite sure what to pick.

- Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
For the aforementioned reasons. I know the setting is not exclusively Southern, but Ashton is in Alabama, and Daniel Wallace is from Alabama himself, so I think this qualifies.

- The Grass Harp by Truman Capote
Capote is one of my all-time favourite writers, and this is probably my favourite of his books. It's a very tender and moving tale of both childhood and old age.

- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
This book, which takes place in New Orleans, is most likely one of the funniest things you'll ever read in your life, but it can also be extremely sad at times, especially if you keep in mind the tragic circumstances of Toole's own life. This is one of those books everyone should read at least once in their lives.

- The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
I first read this book because of "A Confederacy of Dunces" - it was Percy who finally got it published after Toole's suicide. This is a wonderful southern tale of awkwardness, loneliness, estrangement and loss.

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Wicked by Gregory Maguire

This was my first book by Gregory Maguire, but it certainly won't be my last, as I loved it and am quite impressed with his writing. First of all, I have to say that of the original world of Oz I’ve only read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I know he went on to write 13 more books, and that there are “official sequels" by other authors, and I'm sure they add depth to the world, but the idea I have from that one book is that, although charming, Oz is a sort of simplistic world.

In Gregory Maguire's hands, though, Oz was turned into a world as complex as the world we live in. The way he depicts the different faiths of Oz and the struggles between them, its political intrigues, and its racial and ethnical tensions reminded me of some of my very favourite fantasy worlds, like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, or Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

This book tells the life of the famous Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, and also of her sister Nessarose, the Wicked Witch of the East. But what the book does above all is show us that "wicked" (as well as "good" or "evil") is too simplistic a label to classify being as complex as humans. Life is not black or white, but rather full of innumerable shades of grey.

My only complaint about this book is that it's divided in five sections, and there are big temporal jumps between them. What happened in the time separating them is only slowly (and sometimes partially) revealed. The change of section also normally brings a change in the character being focused, and suddenly losing track of a character one has grown to care about can be frustrating for the reader.

I realize that this book encompasses a long time-span, from the time Elphaba is born until her death, so not everything can be told in detail. And although this narrative strategy frustrated me at times, it also made the book impossible to put down for me, as I was dying to find out what had happened during the gaps.

My favourite of the sections was the one describing Elphaba's life at University, how some of the things she's exposed to shape her as a person, and how she begins to connect with others and make friends for the first time in her life. I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, and I love it when books give you a good portrait of the connections formed in a group of friends (this is, in fact, one of my favourite things about the Harry Potter books, for example). The book also rather brilliantly portrays the difficulties one has to face for being different . Both Elphaba and her sister were born different, and the nature of these differences, which I'll let you find out when you read the book, is a huge shaping force in their lives.

Even when the book ends, there are some mysteries that linger, and there's a huge sense of untold tales behind this story, of a large, complex world waiting to be explored. To me, leaving you with this longing for more is one of the marks of good fantasy. Fortunately, Gregory Maguire returned to his Oz with Son of a Witch and will do so again with A Cowardly War. I'm really looking forward to reading them. So, in conclusion, this is a book I strongly recommend. It's fantasy at its very best.

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Apr 14, 2007

Myths and Folk-Tales of the Russians, Western Slavs and Magyars by Jeremiah Curtin

I had originally listed this under mythology, but I've switched it to folklore, because this is a collection of folktales. The title is misleading - there are no myths whatsoever, and this means that my quest for a Slavic Mythology book continues. I know not much is known about it, but I figure there must be books out there with the little that is known. If anyone has any suggestions, they'd be very much appreciated.

But misleading title aside, I loved this book. It's a wonderful collection of Russian, Czech and Hungarian folktales. The storytelling itself is marvelous - the prose is rhythmic and the stories flow very well, and many of the characteristics of the oral tale were preserved, but the writing is also quite poetic at times.

Many of the Russian tales in this collection are well known - they're part of Afanasieff's collection, and the Baba-Yaga, the Fire-Bird, Koshchei-Without-Death and Marya Morevna populate these pages. But there are also less-known tales. There was one I wasn't familiar with and especially liked - "The Feather of Bright Finist the Falcon" - because it's in some ways similar to my all-time favourite fairy-tale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon".

What struck me the most about the Russian tales was how formulaic they are. I know that's a characteristic of folk and fairy tales in general, but I'd never before read a collection where this was as obvious as here. No wonder Propp was Russian. These tales are like puzzles where the pieces are arranged in different orders - the ending of one is, for example, the middle of another. Things often come in threes, or in three sequences of three, and certain phrases are repeated again and again.

Repetition has power over people, especially (but not only) over children. It gives things a ritual, sacred feel. The repetitions in fairy tales or nursery rhymes help us learn how to recognize patterns, and the predictability that comes along with that makes the world a much less frightening place.

Like in nursery rhymes, the repetition I found in these tales was charming. It's exciting to begin to recognize the shape of a tale and be able to predict what will happen next. It's exciting to be right about it, and it's even more exciting when a little variation, an unexpected twist, makes the prediction wrong, and we realize there's a new pattern which we're yet to map.

Repetition is abundant in these tales, but, to me, they were by no means repetitive in a pejorative sense. In fairy tales, like often in life, the charm is in the details, in the little variations that make each story unique. This is actually a theme I've been meaning to explore - routine and novelty, patterns and details both in tales and in life - and reading this collection gave me some ideas about how I might do it.

I also loved the Hungarian and Czech tales in this volume - these are two traditions I'd had absolutely no contact with before, and the tales in this book made me realize how rich they are. The Czech tales had a very refined irony I especially enjoyed.

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Apr 6, 2007

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Well, there is a reason why Neil Gaiman is my favourite writer. This book is even better than I remembered.

The first time I read it was four or five years ago, and since then my knowledge of mythology has increased, so this time around I was able to understand references and pick up details I had missed before. But what's so great about this book is that you don't need to know a thing about mythology to enjoy it. If you don’t, you'll probably leave with a new found interest and you'll learn a thing or two. But if you do, your reading experience will be enriched, and you might be able to guess a few things, since the many mythological references work as hints concerning certain plot points.

Another thing I didn't quite remember about this book is how the tone is so different from Neil's other works - different from the elegance of Stardust, from the epic tone of Sandman. It's rougher, more modern in a sense, but it suits the story perfectly and it works wonderfully.

And Neil's usual timeless tone can be found in the wonderful "Coming to American" interludes, which are among my favourite parts of the book, and, in my opinion, among Neil's best short stories. Myths are, most of the time, pure plot. A story is told, a great story most of the time, but there isn't much room for character, for emotions, for thoughts. What the gods and heroes were thinking and feeling is left for the reader to imagine.

One of the things I love the most about Neil Gaiman is how he imagines this for us. How did Sigyn feel holding that bowl? How was it like to hang from Yggdrasil for nine days? Neil Gaiman perfectly interweaves epic, millennium-old plots with psychological and emotional insight, and that's one of the reasons why his work is so remarkable.

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Apr 3, 2007

Brazilian Native Folktales by Alberto da Costa e Silva

This is an interesting collection. However, I have to say it pales in comparison with other folktale collections I've read recently, namely Penguin's North American Trickster Tales. The problem with this book is that the sources of the stories seem to be mostly late 19th century/ early 20th century clergymen's or anthropologist's notes. And they seem to have tried to keep the stories as "genuine" as possible, but there's a patronizing attitude that comes across quite clearly, especially in the annotations, with expressions like "savages", "primitives" or even "the child-like intelligence of these simple-minded people" popping up much too often for my liking. There's also the fact that the attempt to keep the stories "genuine" ended up, with very few exceptions, sacrificing narrative flow.

However, I'd still say that this collection is worth reading. The stories are interesting, and there was one I particularly liked: Tahina-Can, a Eros and Psyche-ish story about two sisters and an elderly husband who secretly turns into a vigorous young man in the daylight.

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