Jun 30, 2007

The Watermelon King by Daniel Wallace

The Watermelon King is quite possibly my favourite of the books I’ve read this year, and it cemented Daniel Wallace’s position among my favourite authors. It’s actually quite hard to write about a book I love this much – it had such a deep and personal impact on me that I don’t even know where to start. But I’ll try to do my best

Daniel Wallace is best known for Big Fish, the book the Tim Burton movie of the same title was based on. The Watermelon King is set in the same fictional Alabama town as Big Fish, Ashland, and they actually deal with some of the same themes as. Daniel Wallace is a writer of stories about stories – stories that deal with the occasionally thin line between a story and a lie, with the instances in which stories save us, and with the hope and meaning they can bring into our lives. But he also deals with the occasions in which that hope falls apart, and you desperately long to reach behind a story and touch the plain facts – the naked truth. There is a character in this book, Edmund Rider, who’s at first very reminiscent of Big Fish’s Edward Bloom: both are men made out of stories, and both immensely frustrate their grandson and son because of this. However, as you read on and get to know these characters you realise that The Watermelon King is a much darker tale than Big Fish.

This is the story of Thomas Rider, an eighteen-year-old boy who doesn’t know much about his own past. He was raised by his grandfather, and all he knows is that his mother died the day he was born. So he goes back to Ashland, Alabama, the town where he was born, to ask the townspeople what they know about his mother. This book is divided into several sections, and in the first one we’re given the reports of several people who knew Lucy Rider. There is an Old Man; there is Jonah Carpenter, Town Carpenter; there is Mrs. Parsons, Innkeeper; there is Iggy Winslow, Town Idiot; there is Vincent Newby, Negro. And lest these seem like ugly stereotypes (which indeed they are), let me clarify that Wallace presents the short descriptive and dehumanising titles by which these people are known only to expose their absurdity before the undeniable fact of their humanity.

This narrative structure immediately drew me into the novel, as I love stories in which a community talks about its history and its past. The facts, of course, are necessarily mythologised, but that only adds to the novel’s appeal. And by “mythologised” I certainly don’t mean that everything in the stories the townspeople tell is pretty. There’s racism, there’s small-mindedness, and there’s plenty of hatred. But there is also a moving sense of nostalgia – a nostalgia whose terrible consequences we only fully grasp as the story progresses.

The second section of the book tells the story of Thomas Rider’s upbringing and of his life with his grandfather; while the third tells us what actually happened when he went back to Ashland beyond the stories that people told him about his mother. One of the things we learn is that Thomas Rider was told is the story of the Watermelon King. This story is a perfect example of Wallace’s magic realism and of how he embeds his stories with myths:
Once upon a long time ago, beneath this sun, in these fields, our world was full of watermelons. Everywhere you looked there were watermelons. You couldn't walk without stepping on them. Not one person thought to grow them; they seemed to grow themselves. It was said you could watch a vine grow, that you could actually see it move, creeping along the ground as though gripping for something to hold on to, that a watermelon would swell before your eyes like a balloon, and that some grew so large, so enormous, that children could stand upright within their hollowed-out shells.
This is, however, only the beginning. Ashland was Watermelon Capital of the World, and to celebrate this abundance, every year there was a Watermelon Festival. In this festival, [possible spoiler, though this is revealed fairly early on] the Watermelon King – the oldest male in the town who was still a virgin – would be crowned, and he’d offer his virginity as a sacrifice for the town.

This sounds like the story of an old Pagan rite, but by stretching it until modern times, Daniel Wallace explores its emotional impact and its implications when it comes to gender roles. How would the Watermelon King feel as he was crowned? The rite was of course a public humiliation, a mark of failure in one’s “manhood”, and a terribly invasion of what is most personal by the public sphere.

In this novel Daniel Wallace portrays the dark side of small towns in a way that almost reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. It’s not a very flattering portrait, but having grown up in one I do know that despite their charms small towns can indeed be cruel. Few things are uglier than a community’s sense of entitlement to anyone’s private affairs.

There are plenty of delicate and difficult things in this novel, but Daniel Wallace handles them with immense grace. His writing is simple, beautiful, and often very moving. The story unfolds perfectly at the exact right pace, and its full darkness only becomes obvious towards the end. There is much more that I wanted to say about this book, about why I found it so powerful and moving, but I really don’t want to spoil the horrifying final revelation for you. So I’ll urge you all to find out for yourselves instead.

I was very excited to discover that Daniel Wallace will have a new book, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, out next week. I definitely plan on picking it up soon, as well as Ray in Reverse.

The other day I read a great interview with Wallace at the Southern Literary Review, in which he named Kurt Vonnegut, Walker Percy and J. D. Salinger as some of his favourite authors. I’d share the link, but unfortunately it contains one badly-disguised major spoiler for The Watermelon King.

This was my third read for the Southern Reading Challenge, and the last of my “official” choices. But because the challenge goes on until the end of August and I’ve been enjoying it so much, I will probably add an extra or two.

Other Blog Reviews:
A Fondness for Reading
The Inside Cover
A Striped Armchair

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Jun 29, 2007


As promised, today I went back to the Marionettes exhibition and asked if I would be allowed to take pictures. And well, I was!

The name of the artist responsible for these wonders is José Jorge Cerqueira, and unfortunately it appears that he doesn't have a website. It's too bad, because he really should get the kind of exposure the internet provides. And also, I would love to find out more about him: what else he has done, if any of his work is for sale (not that I'd be able to afford it, but one can dream), etc.

The information plaques under many of these marionettes explained how they were inspired by traditional fairy tale characters, or Narnia, or sculptures of gargoyles.

I really love marionettes. I love how, if they are well done, they seem about to come alive at any moment. About these in particular I love that, much like the photography in Carl's post today, they make me want to pick up a pen and write a story - write their stories, perhaps.

These two are my favourites:

(click the images for a larger version)

Different angles:


General perspective:

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Jun 26, 2007

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

"Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here."
Where to start? Over the last few months I’ve come to realize that The Secret Life of Bees is an extremely popular and widely read book. But this is not the case in my little corner of the world. Until a few months ago, when I began it think of what my picks for the Southern Reading Challenge would be, I was perhaps vaguely familiar with the book’s title, but nothing more. This is one of the reasons why I love reading challenges. They expose me to books that I would perhaps not read otherwise – and I would definitely be missing out.

For the few who don’t know, The Secret Life of Bees is the story of Lily, a fourteen-year-old motherless girl living in South Carolina in 1960’s, the time of the Civil Rights movement. Lily’s mother died when she was a small child, and she lives with her uncaring father, and her only friend is Rosaleen, a black servant who helped bring her up after her mother’s death. After the Civil Rights law is passed, Rosaleen goes to town to register her name to vote, but she gets into trouble. The two of them have to run away, and end up at a Bee Farm in Tiburon, South Carolina, living with a coloured family, and Lily begins to work as an assistant beekeeper. From then on, the book is a journey of self-discovery. Lily wants to learn about her mother, and in the process she also learns about herself. The Civil Rights movement and the racial tensions of that period are always in the background, and they add depth to the story.

There are many reasons why I loved this book. The writing itself, for starters, is both simple and beautiful, and, above all, it feels very genuine. There’s earnestness pulsing behind every word. The descriptions are very vivid, and they often create concrete images that convey the feeling that is being described perfectly. One example:
I don’t remember what they said, only the fury of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts. Later it would remind me of birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging themselves against the windows and the walls, against each other.
And another:
I think now that it was sorrow for the sound of his fork scrapping the plate, the way it swelled in the distance between us, how I was not even in the room.
Like I said, I loved how genuine this book felt – the writing itself feels earnest, but there’s more than that. This book shows things as they are. At some point in the story, August Boatwright says, There is nothing perfect. There is only life. This is true in general, and it’s very true of this story in specific. The way problems like racism are portrayed, for example, shows them in their full complexity. Lily is a white girl living with a coloured family, and although she was outraged when Rosaleen was mistreated by white men, she discovers that she too has some prejudice buried inside her. It is only by admitting this to herself that she begins to overcome it.

All through the book, we are shown that in life, things are often not how we wish, nor how we dreamed they’d be. We learn to accept them as they are, though, and to live with them – to treasure them for their flaws, even. They may be broken and human-sized, but they are ours – the events of our lives, which shaped us into who we are. This acceptance, and the treasuring that comes after acceptance, was for me the main core of the story.

Another thing I really liked is how faith is portrayed in this book. The Boatwright sisters are part of the Daughters of Mary, and their faith and their rites are very personal and very passionate.

And of course, there are the bees. Bees are fascinating animals, and, especially after reading Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, I smile every time I find them in a story. In this book, there are quotations from apiculture books before each chapter, and each and every one of them is related to what the characters are going through.

There are quite a few sad events in the book, and not everything Lily unveils in her journey of self-discovery is pleasant, but, despite that, I found this an ultimately uplifting and hopeful story. To the few who haven’t read it, I say: do – it will be worth your time.

Other Blog Reviews:
Nothing of Importance
Out of the Blue
Back to Books
Melody's Reading Corner

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Jun 24, 2007

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

I picked the worst possible time to read this book. This is a book I've been meaning to read for years, and while I didn't exactly dislike it, I enjoyed it considerably less than I expected. I think that part of the problem was the circumstances - this is a book that demands your full attention and availability. It is a book to be read with time, and while it took me a week to get through it, I still felt that I was rushing because I wanted to start reading something else.

The premise behind this book is brilliant - the story starts as you, the reader, begin to read Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. After reading the first chapter, however, you realize that there is something wrong with the book: it contains nothing but the first chapter again and again. You go back to the bookstore to return it, and you are told that yes, there was a problem at the publisher, and yours is not the first complain. The first chapter you read, it turns out, doesn't even belong to Calvino's book, but to a novel by a Polish author. You were getting engaged in the story and you want to see where it goes, so instead of exchanging it for a proper copy of Calvino's novel, you get a copy of that novel by a Polish author. You soon find out that the novel you bought is in no way related to that first chapter you read, but you start reading it anyway, and once again you get drawn into the story, only to find out that, after the first chapter, all the pages of the book are blank.

And so on and so forth. The reader reads a series of novel beginnings, and for some reason something always stops him from reading the rest of the novel. The chapters with these beginnings are alternated with chapters with a main plot, in which the reader - you, as Calvino addresses you - tries to discover what is behind this succession of incomplete novels.

Now, I am a big fan of traditional storytelling - of stories with beginnings, middles and ends (though not necessarily in that order) - and experimentation doesn't always work for me. But I was very much drawn to this book because, as an avid reader, I love stories about storytelling itself, and stories with other stories inside them, like Russian Dolls. The idea of a story in which the reader is always left in suspension, eagerly seeking the conclusion of the stories he's being told, reminded me of Scheherazade and of the Arabian Nights.

But of course, everything depends on how this concept is executed. I've had proof in the past that Italo Calvino is an excellent writer, but one of the reasons why this book did not work for me at this particular point in time is the fact that most of the several beginnings of stories completely failed to captivate me. I found most of them too vague, too diffuse, and I was just not interested in finding out what was going to happen next. That alone made it impossible for me to relate to what the reader - me - was supposed to be feeling.

Plus, in all of those story beginnings I remained aware that what I was reading wasn't really a story, but the experience of someone, a character in a novel, reading a story. This sense of double distance made it impossible for me to get involved, and I realize that this is a part of what Calvino was trying to achieve, but it still alienated me somewhat. Also, there was the fact that I knew that the stories weren't going to be concluded. That too kept me from making the effort to get involved. And this is where the emotional availability I spoke of comes in. Whenever I start reading a book - and I believe this is true for almost everyone almost all the time - I am generally not immediately drawn in. I have to make an effort, which is both intelecual and emotional, to get into the novel. It takes longer with some books than with others, but it is only after that, when familiarity has been achieved, that I truly begin to enjoy the book. Well, a book like this demands that this initial effort is made again and again, and that was more than I could do at this point.

All in all, this is an interesting book, and there were some parts I really enjoyed, but I don't think it is for everyone. If you are a compulsive reader, though, it is likely that you will recognize yourself in some of the character. The book also contains some interesting musings on reading and writing, and caricatures of both writers and different types of readers.

There was a little story, or rather, a little beginning of a story, that was told at the very end of the second to last chapter. That one did get me interested, and I was truly frustrated not to see it continuing. It made me realize how reading this book could have been if only I had felt that way about all the stories.

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books i done read
Bending Bookshelf
A Striped Armchair
Books of Mee

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Jun 22, 2007

Books, books, books!

My sad attempt at Book Porn

This week was exciting, book-acquiring wise. First of all, I won 3 books at Dewey's blogroll game! The books are being kindly donated by Susan at West of Mars, who let the winners pick anything from her Book Crossing inventory. I picked:
  • Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett (One of the few Terry books I don't have!)
  • Chernevog by C. J. Cherryh (This is the second book in a series, but I've been meaning to get the first, "Rusalka", for ages, so this'll give me extra motivation. It’s a fantasy series inspired by Slavic myth and folklore, so I'm quite certain I'll love it.)
  • Sandry's Book by Tamora Pierce (Tamora Pierce is one of those fantasy authors I keep hearing about, but have never read.)
Secondly, I ordered the remaining books for the Southern Reading Challenge last weekend. The Secret Life of Bees arrived yesterday, and I'm really looking forward to reading it. The Watermelon King should hopefully arrive on Monday. I have very high expectations for that one.

Thirdly, I discovered a new book at the library - The Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. To explain how excited I was, I have to tell you that my library does not have a science fiction or fantasy section. This is the first time I've EVER seen a work of genre literature there. On top of that, it's co-edited by one of my favourite authors, and it includes the work of authors like Roger Zelzany, Samuel R. Delaney, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, Marion Zimmer Bradley, John Crowley, Orson Scott Card, Margaret Atwood, and so on - either authors that I like, or authors whose work I've been meaning to read for ages!

Now, even though, I am, as you probably have noticed by now, a huge fantasy fan, I am not particularly well-read in science fiction. There is no particular reason for that, though, it just... never really happened. But most of my favourite fantasy authors write science fiction as well, so it's about time I give it a try. The Norton book is huge, almost 900 pages long, so I'll read it slowly, one story at a time, borrowing it from the library occasionally, or just reaching out for it whenever I'm taking a break from studying. It just makes me happy to know that this book exists, and that it is within my reach.

And finally, the most exciting thing of all - I went to the campus bookstore at lunch time, for no particular reason other than the fact that I hadn't been there in quite some time. It's a smallish bookstore, carrying mostly things students are likely to need. And yet, there it was - the Dark Alchemy anthology. Again, to explain how excited I was, I have to tell you that bookstores around here rarely, if ever, have fantasy and science fiction sections, and the amount of untranslated English books available is very small. And yet there it was, practically glowing on the shelf. I couldn't believe it, and of course I had to get it right away.

Dark Alchemy is the same as Wizards: a recently published collection of brand new tales from the masters of modern fantasy - Garth Nix, Jane Yolen, Orson Scott Card, Peter S. Beagle, and, of course, NEIL GAIMAN, with "The Witch's Headstone", a short story that is also a chapter from his upcoming The Graveyard Book. The possibility of reading this story today was the main reason for my excitement, although I'm sure the rest of the collection will be very good as well.

Finding this book made me happier than I can say. Normally buying books is a delayed pleasure for me. The kind of books I love the most (fantasy, and preferably in English) can't just be bought at bookstores here. I have to order them online, and wait patiently for a week or longer for them to arrive. So coming home with a brand new book I'm this excited about is a very rare thing for me. The timing was absolutely perfect too. This has been a bad week, reading-wise. I have been stressed and tired and I've been having less reading time than normally. Plus, like Robin said, picking up a book after To Kill a Mockingbird has been difficult. I'm sort of stuck with the Calvino book I'm reading. But getting home and reading the Neil Gaiman story has sort of regenerated reading for me. All I can say is... wow. I know I should wait until I finish the book to post about it, but I'll probably write a post about this story in the near future.

The campus book store also had Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Memories of my Melancholy Whores at a very appealing price, so I just had to buy it as well. I've been dying to read more of his work after Love in the Time of Cholera, and this one is only 100 pages long, so it will hopefully be a fast and satisfying read.

There was a third reason why I was very happy I decided to go to the bookstore. There is an exhibition of marionettes by a local artist that will be there until the end of the month, and whoa, they are amazing, simply amazing. Many are inspired by characters of folk and fairy tales; others are not, but still seem to have come straight out of that world. They were all beautiful and slightly creepy and a little reminiscent of some of Lisa Snelling's works. I am very tempted to go back with my camera and ask if I'm allowed to photograph them. I would love to share them with all of you.

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Jun 21, 2007

A Book Meme

I found this meme at Trish's blog, who is tagging anyone who wants to do it, and I'm doing the same.

The rules are simple. In the following list of a hundred books, bold the ones you've read, mark in blue the ones you want to read, mark in red the ones you don't want to read (in my case, because they don't sound like my kind of thing, or because of previous bad experiences with the author), italicize the ones you've never heard of, and... well, don't do anything with the ones you feel indifferent towards, I guess, or that you wouldn't mind reading but aren't dying to.

My results are a little embarrassing. Not only have I only read 22 of these 100 books, but I also have never heard of 23. I'll leave you with my results, and I'll go hide under a rock.

1. The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) (I know)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Rowling)
17. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) (I know, I know)
21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
34. 1984 (Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
38. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. The Bible
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
57. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
59. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
66. One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
70. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According to Garp (John Irving)
79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
80. Charlotte's Web (E.B. White)
81. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)
85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down(Richard Adams)
87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
91. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd) (soon, very soon. It came in the mail today)
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. Ulysses (James Joyce)

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Jun 20, 2007

Book Awards Reading Challenge

Now that "Once Upon a Time" is coming to an end (sniff), I thought I'd join another reading challenge before I started suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

The Book Awards Reading Challenge is being hosted by 3M, and the goal is to read 12 award-winning books between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008.

I was a little hesitant about joining this one at first, simply because it lasts for a whole year, and it's difficult for me to commit to a challenge for that long - especially because my life is going to change quite a bit from September onwards, and I have no idea how things will be in terms of time to read - at first, anyway. But, like Athena pointed out, it only takes a few months to read 12 books. I could probably read quite a few this summer, and then take my time with the others, or even add extras during the first half of 2008.

Plus, like I mentioned a while ago, I've been meaning to read more Pulitzers, and this challenge is the perfect excuse!

So, here is my list:
  1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Pulitzer 2001) (I have every reason to believe I'm going to LOVE this one.)
  2. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Pulitzer 1983) (I was already thinking of adding this as an extra for Maggie's Southern Reading Challenge)
  3. Beloved by Toni Morrison(Pulitzer 1988)
  4. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (World Fantasy Award 2006)
  5. Little, Big by John Crowley (World Fantasy Award 1982) (Neil Gaiman recommends this one, and I've been meaning to read it for ages.)
  6. Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner (World Fantasy Award 1991)
  7. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (Hugo 1970, and Nebula 1969) (Ursula Le Guin is one of my favourite authors, and this is said to be one of her masterpieces, but when I tried to read it some years ago, I couldn't get past the first few chapters. I think it was probably just wrong timing, though, and I am more than willing to give it another try.)
  8. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushie (Booker Prize 1981)
  9. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishuguro (Booker Prize 1989)
  10. The God of Small Things Arundhati Roy (Booker Prize 1997) (Also on my Reading Across Borders list)
  11. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (Newbery Medal 1978) (Because it's been recommended to me several times, and plus I loved what Quixotic wrote about it a while ago.)
  12. On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Orange Prize 2006)

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Jun 18, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It is a little hard for me to write about this book, because the impression I have is that nearly everyone has read it, and that everything that could possibly be said about it has already been said. Still, here’s my take.

I think that what impressed me the most about this book was how very human it is. People are portrayed as people – with flaws and shortcomings and limitations, but as real people despite them, or because of them. Through Atticus Finch’s example, we are encouraged to step into the shoes of each and every one of the characters.

Another thing I loved was how accurately Harper Lee portrays childhood. I remember it feeling just like that – striving to understand the world and claiming to know more than you do, the allure of that which you cannot know, the importance of things like dares and what others think and fighting in the schoolyard and not showing you are afraid, gravitating around an older sibling and being so hurt when you are left out, daring to ask questions no one else asks.

The sense of place is very strong in this book, and this passage illustrates it clearly:
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
I suppose I could say that, through the children’s eyes, we have access to an innocent view of life in this small town, but it’s not even a matter of innocence, but a matter of rationality. Because they are children, they are more rational than adults – they look at things and see them as they are, with no preconceptions obscuring their judgement, with no fear, and they dare question and point out what so few will.

The way the story unfolds feels inevitable, but that only makes it more powerful, more real. It is easy to predict how things will turn out, and this is part of the powerful statement this book makes.

This was my first read for Maggie’s Southern Reading Challenge, and I’m very glad to have picked it up at last.

Other Blog Reviews:
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Tripping Toward Lucidity
Blue Archipelago
So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Once Upon a Bookshelf
Becky's Book Reviews
Nothing of Importance
Rhinoa's Ramblings
My Year of Reading Seriously
A Fondness for Reading
The Bluestocking Society

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Jun 17, 2007

Once Upon a Time 2007: Finale

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And with "The Epic of Gilgamesh", I finished the Once Upon a Time challenge. I have to confess that this book was not on my original list: the reason why I added it was the fact that otherwise my totals would be 7 books for each category, except mythology, with 6. I realize that makes me sound like I have OCD, but ah well. I like neatness in numbers.

The final list of the 29 books I read for the challenge is here. I'm very happy that I managed to finish my personal quest: to read at least five books in each of the four categories. Many of the books I ended up reading were not on my original list, so I thank Carl for being such a flexible host.

I'm a little sad that I didn't get to read two of the more challenging books on the list: "The Odyssey", and "Lady Gregory's Complete Irish Mythology". The problem was that I procrastinated reading them - I should have tackled them earlier in the challenge, because early Spring is, I've come to realize, my most productive time of the year. In May and June I tend to be more tired, and, with the end of the semester and finals approaching dangerously, too busy, and in need of lighter reads. But, inspired by Petunia, I decided that I'm going to read "The Odyssey" before the end of the year.

Completing this challenge was easy in the sense that reading fantasy, mythology and folklore is what I normally do - it's nearly as much a part of me as breathing, really. So I really admire those who do not normally read fantasy, but took the opportunity to venture into a new genre. But even for me, the challenge was very useful because it gave me extra motivation, and it gave my reading structure and direction.

I really want to thank Carl for everything, and especially for being such a wonderful host. What I loved the most about the challenge was the interaction it created between readers, and Carl did everything to stimulate that.

Before the challenge, I didn't even have this blog, and I would often find myself wishing I had more people to discuss books with. I have friends who enjoy reading, but none is as voracious a reader as I am. Now, thanks to the challenge, I found a community of people willing to discuss books at all times. Plus, I discovered at least half a dozen blogs of which I've become a faithful reader. So, again, thank you, Carl, and thank you everyone else who took part in the challenge. I'm already looking forward to Once Upon a Time 2008.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we deal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep forever, does the flood-time of rivers endure? It is only the nymph of the dragon-fly that sheds her larva and sees the sun in his glory. From the days of old there is no permanence. The sleeping and the dead, how alike they are, they are like a painted death.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is among the oldest surviving pieces of literature in the world. That alone makes it fascinating for me. I find the appeal of ancientness irresistible. Perhaps because I cannot know, I long to know – how was the world five our four thousand years ago? How were we? What did we think and feel and believe?

It is a great miracle that this epic has survived. But at the same time, its existence makes me wonder what other masterpieces we might have lost. The little we do have is like the few surviving pieces of a puzzle, which, despite being fictional, help us reconstruct a picture of the past.

What I like the most about Gilgamesh is how emotional a story it is. Mythology, more often than not, is pure plot. There is action and struggle and sacrifice, but the feelings of the characters are left for the reader to recreate. But not so with Gilgamesh.

According to the epic, Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king who abused his powers and became tyrannical. His people asked the gods for help, and they send Enkidu, a half-wild man who was the only one who could match Gilgamesh in strength. Enkidu cannot defeat Gilgamesh, but Gilgamesh cannot defeat Enkidu either, and the two end up becoming close friends. The first part of the epic tells us some of the adventures they went on together. The second part, though, is devoted to Gilgamesh’s deep grief and despair when his companion passes away. Gilgamesh misses his friend acutely, and, more than that, his passing makes him realize his own mortality, and he is taken by a deep fear. The last part of the epic tells us of Gilgamesh’s search for immortality.

This is a story of friendship, of loss, or fear, of awareness of mortality, of grief - and what could be more human than that? For thousands of years now we have dealt with these same questions. We have changed a lot over the millennia, but when it comes to some things, we haven’t changed so much after all.

What I read was the Penguin Epics edition of Gilgamesh. It’s mostly in prose, but I found it very well written. The tone is poetic and epic, but it remains very readable. Plus, there is a very useful glossary at the end with the names of the Mesopotamian deities mentioned in the epic. The book is only about 70 pages long, so it’s a fast and satisfying read. For those who love mythology, this is certainly a must-read.

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5-Squared (Jason)

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Jun 16, 2007

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I have to learn to let you crash down
where are the velvets
when you're coming down

~Tori Amos, Hotel

There is nothing like revisiting an old favourite and discovering that it’s even better than you remembered.

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a Scottish young man living in London. His life is, on the surface, as good as it can be. He has a good job, he is engaged to one of the most beautiful women he has ever seen, and his days are predictable, comfortable and calm. But one day, when he and his fiancée are on their way to a Very Important Dinner with her boss, he sees a young woman bleeding on the pavement. She asks for help, and he knows that stopping to help her and missing the dinner arrangements will most likely cost him his engagement and his future, but he simply cannot not do it. So he picks the girl up and takes her back to his apartment, leaving his fiancée behind.

Now, in fairy tales, good deeds like this are normally rewarded, but for Richard (at first, at least), his helpful gesture costs him his life. Not in a literal sense – he is not killed, even though his life is threatened more than once – but he discovers that, for all practical purposes, he seems to have ceased to exist in the real world.

Richard finds himself dragged into London Below, an underground world where speaking to a rat is an honour, where a dreadful Beast roams a maze, Minotaur-like, where there are Black Friars in Blackfriars, an Earl and his court in Earl’s Court, a Raven at Raven’s court, and a floating market where the most unlikely things are sold – and this is only the start.

What I love the most about Neverwhere is how, using place names, Neil Gaiman managed to create a whole new mythology for London. I know that when I visit it later this year I will smile as I pass the places mentioned in Neverwhere, and part of me will wonder what might be happening underneath my feet, in the dark tunnels of London Below. This is what fantasy does – it enriches our lives. We do not believe it, and yet a tiny part of us believes enough for our world to be expanded, for real things and real places to gain further meaning.

Among the strange inhabitants of London Below, I think my favourites are the Velvets, which Tori Amos mentions in her song. These are pale, dark-clad young women who move absolutely silently. We only get to know one of them, Lamia, whom Richard finds the most beautiful of them all. And this brings me to another thing I love about Neil Gaiman – how the constant mythological and folkloric allusions in his work are so enriching. The word “Lamia" gives you an immediate clue about the nature of the Velvets, but some readers, like myself many years ago, when I read the book for the first time, do not know what a Lamia is. And yet, after reading it, they will perhaps investigate, and the meaning of the book will be further expanded.

If I could give Neil Gaiman a gift, it would be time – more weeks in the year, more hours in the days, more minutes in the hours. He has said, more than once I believe, that he intends to return to the world of Neverwhere and tell some of the stories it contains – the tale of Serpentine and the Seven Sisters, or more stories about the Marquis de Carabas. But it’s been over ten years now, and he hasn’t gotten around to it yet, because he’s been too busy telling us other wonderful stories.

I long for more of Neverwhere, but I think that only makes me love it more. What we get in this book is a glimpse of a world that is too large to fit its pages, but this is what the best fantasy does (and Middle Earth is a perfect example): it builds a world that is fully alive, complete with background stories, its own tales and myths and unexplored corners, and it leaves us longing for more. It leaves us filled with the desire to travel further into it. But isn’t this longing one of those things that let you know you are alive? For me, it’s not too different from longing for more after a great conversation with someone with whom you connect, or longing to get to know a person who you think could mean a lot to you better, or longing to travel around the world. And this is, after all, the reason why I read: because I know that every now and then I’ll find a book that will grant me a reading experience that will be among the most meaningful experiences of my life.

I had forgotten how much I love the ending of this book. I cannot say much, for obvious reasons, so I’ll just say it makes some excellent points about the role of imagination and fantasy in our lives. To find out how, go on and read this book.

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My Own Little Reading Room
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Melody's Reading Corner
somewhere i have never travelled
Becky's Book Reviews
Reading Room

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Jun 14, 2007

Norwegian Folktales by Asbjornsen and Moe

Norwegian Folktales by Asbjornsen and Moe

I read this book slowly, as perhaps folktales books should be read – often no more than a tale a day, and generally before bed.

A lot of the tales in this collection were reminiscent of the Russian folktales I read earlier this year. That is to be expected – people travel, after all, and stories travel along with them. But, more than that, people are all people, and their imaginations work in remarkably similar ways.

But similarities apart, there is local flavouring, there is uniqueness in detail. Jacob Grimm himself said that Norwegian Folktales were among the finest in the world – “they have a freshness and a fullness that surpass almost all others.” I can certainly understand where he was coming from. These tales also have a very particular sense of humour that I appreciated a lot – “The Old Woman Against the Stream” is a good example.

One of the things I liked best about this collection is how the geography of the land is imprinted in these stories. There are mountains and forest, snowy landscapes and fjords. And there are echoes of Nordic mythology as well – almost every other tale features a troll.

My favourite story in this collection was probably “The Companion” – a story in which a young man goes in search of the woman of his dreams – quite literally. On his way he finds a town in which there is a block of ice with the frozen body of dead man inside, and all the townspeople spit on it as they walk past it. When he enquires about it, he is told that the body belongs to a cruel man. The young man thinks that, despite that, it is time that the poor man gets a proper burial, and he spends all his savings arranging for that to happen. As often happens in fairy tales, his good deed is soon repaid, and he finds the help he needs to fulfill his quest.

Other favourites of mine include “Squire Per”, a version of Puss in Boots with a very fundamental difference concerning the cat, “The Golden Bird” (which is remarkably similar to the Russian tale of the Grey Wolf and the Firebird) and “The Boy with the Beer Keg” – a story I’d read last year when I was investigating variations of Godfather Death.

I was a little surprised that this collection did not include “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” – my favourite, and probably the best-known, Norwegian Folktale. It did include, however, a tale called “White Bear King Valemon”, which I suppose could be considered a variation of this tale.

Finally, the tale “The Twelve Wild Ducks” was a delightful mixture of elements of Snow White and The Six Swans.

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Jun 12, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

art by Charles Vess

I started reading this play last week, and even though it’s short, it took me a while to get through it. This was because I couldn’t help but to feel, at first, that something was amiss. I do not have the habit of reading drama. I’m not quite sure why; it’s just something I’ve never really done. So I never gained the habit, and perhaps for this reason sitting down to read a play was a little strange for me. And there is also the fact that drama is, first and foremost, meant to be performed. The text of the play is only half the story. There are certain subtleties, certain bits of emotional content, that are meant to be conveyed by the actors.

But then I decided to follow Robin’s excellent advice, and tried to immerse myself in the story in other ways.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get a hold of the 1999 film version and watch it again, but I read a retelling from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare, a book I had actually forgotten I have. Then I also read E. Nesbit’s version, from Beautiful Tales from Shakespeare. Both versions are simplified, of course, and they leave certain things out, but they were good ways of renewing my familiarity with the story. There is no such thing as spoilers when it comes to this play, after all. I also read Bullfinch’s retelling of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Knowing the stories behind the story helped make everything more understandable.

Then I read the play again from the start. It’s much easier to follow when you know the story well, and I could take my time to delight in Shakespeare’s beautiful language. Again, I point you towards Robin’s review, because she chose some beautiful passages to share.

One of my favourite things about this play is the way Shakespeare mixes a Classical setting with very English folkloric elements: the faeries, the forest, Puck or Robin Goodfellow. Shakespeare’s faeries are considerably tamer than their folkloric counterparts, but, regardless of that, I love the way they are used in this play. I also loved the way I recognized several quotations even though I had never read the play in its entirety before. Shakespeare is such an important part of Western culture that one cannot help but come across him. Some of the quotations I remembered from Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, which I read recently.

art by Arthur Rackman

And finally, I could resist doing one last thing: re-reading Neil Gaiman’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, from The Sandman: Dream Country. This is the third volume in the Sandman series, but it can actually be read on its own. It’s a collection of short stories that are not directly related with the main story arch, and I think it would be a good introduction to the world of the Sandman. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Neil Gaiman tells us the story of the first time Shakespeare’s play is performed: at a faerie mound on Midsummer Night, and with Queen Titania, King Oberon and their fairy court as spectators.
Morpheus: Now you have left, for your own haunts. And I would repay you all for the amusement, and more: They shall not forget you. That was important to me: that king Auberon and Queen Titania will be remembered by mortals, until this age is gone.

Oberon: We thank you, shaper. But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true. Things never happened thus.

Morpheus: Oh, but it IS true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”

Titania: If you say so, Dream Lord. We are honoured.
The comic is beautiful illustrated by the wonderful Charles Vess (the first image on this post is his, the second being Arthur Rackman's). For a great review of this story, I point you towards Dark Orpheus.

To complete my experience with this play, I plan on, like Robin, watching one of the movie versions soon. And hopefully later this year I will be able to actually see the play being performed.

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You Can Never have Too Many Books
Becky's Book Reviews
Trish's Reading Nook
Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Educating Petunia
A Fondness for Reading

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Jun 11, 2007

Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith

This book is part of the Canongate Myths Series, and it was an extra read for the Once Upon a Time challenge. I decided to pick it up because I was really impressed with the books I’d read in the series, and this one was no exception. Getting it was a bit of a shot in the dark, because I was not familiar with Alexander McCall Smith, nor with the Celtic Myth of Angus, but I was very pleasantly surprised. In fact, I think this is my favourite book in the series so far.

Angus is the Celtic God of love, youth and dreams. McCall Smith describes him as follows:
Angus was the god of love, and of youth too, and of dreams. All who saw him loved him; there were no exceptions. They would wait for him to pass by and they would ask him to send them a dream of the man or the woman who would be their lover, and he always did that; he never refused. And if the person who stopped him and asked him was a girl or a woman, she would get a kiss, and the kiss would become a bird, a small bird that would flutter around for a few moments and then would disappear somewhere on the wind, leaving those who had seen it to wonder whether they had imagined the whole thing.
In Dream Angus, certain mythological episodes concerning Angus’ conception, birth and life are beautifully retold. The chapters about Angus are alternated with chapters with contemporary stories of people whose lives are touched by Angus – by dreams, by love, by youth and the loss of it – in one way or another.

These stories are beautiful, and some are really moving too. There’s the story of the couple on their honeymoon who still have to discover what sharing and intimacy truly mean; there’s the story of the young Scottish boy who loves his older brother more than anything; there’s the story of the pig-keeper who gets too attached to one of the lab pigs he looks after; there’s the story of the woman who feels her life crumbling along with her marriage. These stories are subtly related to one another, and are of course also related to Angus, some in more obvious ways than others.

What I loved the most about this book was how beautiful the writing was. I kept thinking it reminded me of something, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. It was of one of my favourite books, Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish. Dream Angus has the same kind of subtle mix of fantasy and realism, the same attention to detail, the same simple and yet beautiful way of describing things and people and feelings which makes them seem fresh and new. There were many moments in the book that brought tears to my eyes. Allow me to share just one more passage, one that I really love:
…but stranger than that, surely, was something one of the women noticed about the birds that perched Angus’s window overnight, waiting until he should come outside in the morning. At first the women thought that these birds never truly slept, as they made tiny sounds, chirruping through the night, but then they noticed that the birds’ eyes were indeed closed and that the sounds they made were the sounds of their bird-dreams, as a sleeping dog will growl when it chases some quarry in its dreams. Nobody had imagined that birds dreamed, and many would have said it was impossible, for birds have very small heads and there is no room for dreams in such heads; but these women now knew differently, because they had seen it. They knew that birds had dreams, even if they were tiny ones, of small things that happened in small places – amongst the leaves, or in little corners, in the small lives of birds.
This book was a very fast read. I thought I would have no time to read this weekend, as I was going to be out most of the time, but I got through it in a little over an hour on the train. It left me wanting to read more of Alexander McCall Smith’s work, and also wanting to read more about Celtic Mythology. I don’t know as much about it as I do about other traditions, but I really love everything I do know.

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A Fondness for Reading
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Jun 8, 2007

The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman & Yoshitaka Amano

The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman & Yoshitaka Amano

This book was not originally a part of my Once Upon a Time reading list. However, Chris’ review really made me want to read it, and I thought that now would be the perfect time. Neil Gaiman is my favourite author, after all, plus I love The Sandman and, being a huge Final Fantasy fan, I also love Yoshitaka Amano, who is responsible for the book's gorgeous illustrations.

I think that this book would be a fine introduction to Neil Gaiman. It is a Sandman story, but you don’t need to be familiar with "The Sandman" to read it. You may not identify certain familiar characters if you’re not, but that doesn’t interfere in the understanding of the story at all.

I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that The Dream Hunters is a retelling of a Japanese folktale named “The Fox, The Monk, and the Mikado of All Night’s Dreaming”. It is, according to what Neil says in the afterword, a faithful retelling, and the fact that it fits the Sandman universe so well is an almost alarming coincidence. But we're all human, after all, so it’s natural than people’s imaginations follow similar paths independently from time to time.

This tale is a shape-shifter tale, a tale that deals with fox-women, which seem to be common in Japanese folklore. It is also a story of love and courage and sacrifice and loss. I am not too familiar with Japanese folklore, but, after reading this book, I realize that I need to do something about that as soon as possible. I want to start by reading the original folktale this book is based on (hopefully it won’t be too difficult to find), and then read a full collection.

One of the things that impressed me the most about this book is how flexible Neil Gaiman’s storytelling voice is. Like I said, I’m not too familiar with Japanese folklore, but the tone he used seemed just right to introduce readers to this universe. There was nothing foreign or alien about it. He weaves the tale with such confidence you would think he’s been immersed in tales of Old Japan all his life.

To give you a taste of it, let me share this quote:
Now in those days there were many things walking the earth that we rarely see today. There were ghosts and demons, and spirits of all kinds; there were beast gods and little gods and great gods; there were all manner of entities, beings, and wraiths and creatures, both kind and malevolent.
Also, this book has the best description of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, I have ever seen. It describes him as:
…one who shaped, who moulded and formed things from chaos and from nothing, who transmuted things from formlessness and shapelessness into that-which-was-not-real, but without which the real would have no meaning.
And of course, no post about The Dream Hunters can be complete without the proper amount of praise for Yoshitaka Amano’s absolutely stunning artwork:

Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams

The Baku, the Dream Eaters

The Fox and the Badger

This book is a very quick read: my edition is only 126 pages long, more than half of which are full-page illustrations. So if you ever have a bit of money to spend and a few hours to kill, considering getting this. I honestly believe that spending time with a thing of such beauty will make your life better.

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Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
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Jun 7, 2007

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a very free retelling of the old Scottish ballad of the same name. Perhaps because of the title, I expected it to be closer to the original story. This is in fact a modernized version; however, the novel is none the worse for it.

This book is part of Terri Windling’s Fairy Tales series, and this edition has an introduction by the wonderful Windling herself. In it, she explains that even though Tam Lin is a ballad and not a fairy tale, it has quite a few fairy tale elements, and was adapted into a fairy tale by Joseph Jacob. She also gives us information about the old tales and traditions surrounding All Hallow’s Eve, and recommends other modern retellings of this story (including my beloved “Fire & Hemlock”), and also musical performances of the ballad (including one by Fairport Convention that I absolutely must hear).

Tam Lim is, without giving too much away to those not familiar with it, a story about a woman, her lover, and the Queen of Faerie. And the word “faerie” is used here in the oldest possible sense – not miniature creatures with butterfly wings, but the ancient, tall, frightening beings of pagan times. I love how this edition of the book contains the original ballad itself printed at the end. I had read it online before, but it’s nice to have it in book form.

Pamela Dean’s novel is set in the 1970’s, and at a college campus in Minnesota. The book is, on the surface, completely realistic. Janet, the protagonist, is 18 years old when the story starts, and has just moved into a dorm for her first year of college. The story focuses on Janet, her roommates, her courses, her friends, her love life, the literature she so much loves, the theatre, her growing pains, everything that is part of crossing the threshold into adulthood.

But just bellow the surface, there are many strange little things that hint at the subtle presence of the supernatural in the background. Some of these are easier to pick up if you're familiar with the ballad. What I found so ingenious about this book is that Janet herself doesn’t make too much out of these strange occurrences, except in rare moments of clarity. The book perfectly mimics the confusion that, according to the old folk tales, any mortal is bond to feel in the presence of Faerie.

The most obvious strange thing about Blackstock College is the rumoured presence of the ghost of a young woman who killed herself there in the late nineteenth century. This ghost makes its presence known by throwing books out of the window of the room where she put an end to her life. But these are just rumours, after all, pieces of college folklore. The sense of strangeness, however, increases as the book progresses, and finally all the pieces of the puzzle come together.

One of the first things I noticed about this novel - it becomes obvious in the very first chapter - is that it mentions a lot of books. Janet is an English Major, and literature is her passion. When the story opens, she is unpacking the three boxes of books she brought with her to college. These include The Wind in the Willows, Lewis' 'Til We Have Faces and The Children of Llyr, among others. She takes an immediate dislike to one of her roommates because she declares, “These are children’s books!”, and also because she says she found Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time silly.

Other authors and books mentioned include The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, The Iliad, Keats, Pope, T. S. Eliot, Dr. Johnson, and Shakespeare - a lot of Shakespeare. Pamela Dean quotes extensively from many of these author’s works, and the book is full of literary references, some of which I have no doubt missed. This is a perfect book for book lovers – one cannot help but to smile when a favourite is mentioned. But even those who are not obsessive readers or aren’t familiar with many of the works mentioned or quoted are bond to be moved by Janet’s passion for literature.

Like I said, Shakespeare is all over the book, and this put me in the right mood to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and finish the Once Upon a Time challenge.

If I have one complaint, it's that the last quarter of the book was a little rushed compared to the first three. Janet's first year at college is described in great detail; the other three, not so much. It’s in her fourth year that events culminate, and I wish there had been more details, and that the pace of the action had been slower. But the fact that I wanted even more details in a novel that is over 450 pages long goes to show how engaging I found this story.

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Jun 4, 2007

Victorian Fairy Tales edited by Jack Zipes

Before I read this book, I was a little reluctant when it came to Victorian fairy tales. I love the Victorians, but it was in the Victorian era, after all, that fairy tales began to be stripped of all darkness and ambiguity to become the sugary, simplistic stories Disney often showers us with today. Still, I thought that reading this collection would at least have historical interest, and being a great appreciator of Jack Zipes’ anthologies I decided to give it a try.

Well, this collection did have historical interest, and much more besides. There were some stories I simply loved, and even in the ones I didn’t I was completely charmed by the beautiful, elaborate Victorian language.

The table of contents was another reason why I decided to read this: the book includes authors like Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, George MacDonald and Kenneth Grahame, among others whose work I wasn't familiar with. In addition to that, the book is beautifully illustrated by the likes of Richard Doyle, George Cruikshank and Walter Crane.

This collection, like everything Jack Zipes does, is superbly organized. There is a long and very informative introduction where Zipes acknowledges that fairy tales in Victorian times tended to be explicitly moralistic, and were used to indoctrinate children with strict social and moral values. But of course, the overall trends of an era don't really reflect everything that was being done at the time, and the book is also full of counterexamples: tales whose purpose is simply to celebrate imagination and storytelling, tales that present alternative sets of values, and tales where Victorian society is more or less openly criticized.

The stories are presented chronologically, from 1839 to 1902, and because of this the gradual changes in the way stories were told really stand out. I liked the second half of the collection a lot more: the stories are less moralistic, more humorous, and a lot more original. This was the beginning of the Edwardian era, which is after all often referred to as the Golden Age of children's literature. There's also a small introduction before each story with information on the author and their work, which is something Zipes always does and which I find very useful and absolutely love.

Now, about the stories themselves – as expected, there were some that were very obviously preachy: Catherine Sinclair's "Uncle David's Nonsensical Story about Giants and Fairies" shows us what happens to idle children who do not want to learn their lessons; Alfred Crowquill's "The Love of Gold" is about the consequences of greed; George Cruikshank’s story, a retelling of Cinderella, is mostly a piece of unintentional comedy. The story is beautifully written, and for the first three quarters its seem to be a regular retelling of Cinderella. But Cruikshank’s only purpose in retelling fairy tales was to preach against the evils of alcoholism, and wasn't in the least subtle about it. In his Cinderella, we have the Fairy Godmother telling the King not to serve any wine at the Prince’s wedding, because even one drop of the foul liquid is too much. Now, I don’t even drink, but this was so completely radical and over the top that it made me laugh out loud. The mini-introduction to this story offers an interesting piece of trivia: Dickens was so shocked by the extremely moralistic way in which Cruikshank retold fairy tales that their friendship came to an end.

Lewis Carroll’ story, “Bruno’s Revenge”, was one of my very favourites. In the introduction, Jack Zipes says, "His Alice books served to liberate the fairy tale from moralism and encouraged young readers to think for themselves and question the accepted norms of the adult world." This is true, and it shows. This story is an except from the novel “Sylvie & Bruno” (which I absolutely must read), but this version is different from the one that appears in the novel – and, according to Zipes, better.

There were two realistic tales I found very interesting: "Cinderella", by Anne Isabella Ritchie, and "Red Riding-Hood Over Again" by Harriet Louisa Childe-Pemberton. Both contain no magical elements whatsoever. They retell the stories in a realistic and straightforward manner, and the appeal is that they portray the lives of young women in Victorian society in detail. They were both quite delightful to read – even though the second is a cautionary tale about what happens to young women who dare defy the social norms by talking to strangers. I'm sure you can imagine the rest.

Other noteworthy tales were “The Ogre Courting“ by Juliana Horatia Ewing, a very enjoyable Bluebeardhish story, Kipling's "The Potted Princess", which uses Indian folklore motifs, and George MacDonald's "The Day Boy and Night Girl". I found the premise behind this last story wonderful. A witch decides to conduct an experiment: she raises a boy and a girl, and the boy is only every exposed to the daytime, while the girl is only acquainted with the dark. The story is about what happens when they first venture out of the element in which they’ve lived all their lives.

Like I said, the last few stories in this collection were my favourite, and these included “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame, a humorous story about a dragon who refuses to act like one, and “The Last of Dragons”, by Edith Nesbit, another humorous story, this one about a princess who wants to fight dragons herself instead of simply waiting for a prince to rescue her. Hooray for that.

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Jun 1, 2007

Memorable Book Quotes #4 and Some Ramblings

There are only two worlds - your world, which is the real world, and the other worlds, the fantasy. Worlds like this are worlds of the human imagination; their reality, or lack of reality, is not important. What is important is that they are there. These worlds provide an alternative. Provide an escape. Provide a threat. Provide a dream, and power; provide refuge, and pain. They give your world meaning. They do not exist, and thus they are all that matters. Do you understand?
Neil Gaiman - Books of Magic

This, along with the Sandman quote on my sidebar, is one of my all-time favourite Neil Gaiman passages.


And now the ramblings - Finals are approaching dangerously, and I've been SO busy lately. I have to study all the time, and so my pleasure-reading time has been cut to 45 minutes after lunch. I've been reading Jack Zipe's anthology of Victorian Fairy Tales, and I'm loving it so far, but progress has been slow. The Norwegian Folktales are on hold for the time being. I have Pamela Dean's Tam Lim waiting for me, and I wanted to start To Kill a Mockingbird today, but unfortunately it won't be possible.

So many wonderful books I want to get started with, and so little time to read! There are only 20 days left until Midsummer, and I there's still A Midsummer Night's Dream to read. And I also wanted to squeeze in a re-read of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and also maybe his Dream Hunters or/and The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. I think I'm going to order the last two anyway, because even if I don't complete them before the end of the Once Upon a Time challenge, they will be delightful summer reads anyway.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.