Tuesday, February 26, 2013

REVIEW: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
by Catherynne M. Valente

“She did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts. They do this because they are afraid of the world and of being stared at, or relied upon to do feats of bravery or boldness. And all of those brave and wild and cunning and marvelous and beautiful parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms—and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts, too—end up in their shadow.” 

September once went to Fairyland. She went on a quest, and lost her heart, and saved Fairyland from the evil Marquess. Now she is back home in Wisconsin, waiting for the day when her chance will come again. When it finally does, September returns to a Fairyland very unlike the one she left. And it seems to be mostly her fault. The shadow that she sold in Fairyland in return for a girl's life has taken over Fairyland-Below and begins to steal the shadows of those people above. The shadows hold the darker, more passionate, hidden desires of the bearer, and most of the magic as well. Fairyland is being drained of magic as September's shadow, The Hollow Queen, Halloween, "frees" the shadow people and builds up her kingdom below.

Last time, September was a heartless child. She was selfish, in the unapologetic way children are selfish, and her adversaries are external. She creates a boat out of her own clothes and hair and kills a fish with her bare hands. She wrestles her best friend to get a wish. She defeats a girl who is very like herself, or who she could have been. This time, September is older. She has a growing heart, as the book says, as she enters her early teens. Her adventures are internal, examining the idea of relationships through the eyes of deer people who see marriage as hunting and slavery. She struggles with shadows of friends she thought she knew. She wants to find the thing she is supposed to do with her life. She feels she has lost the wilder parts of herself since she has lost her shadow, but she equated it with growing older and more sensible. While the obstacles she faces are quieter and subtler than those in the first book, they touch the heart of one who feels she has lost her wildness from growing up.

Again, Valente creates a glorious world, this time Fairyland-Below. The shadow people, the Goblin Market, the Vicereine of Coffee and the Duke of TeaTime, the Forgetful Sea, the kangaroo-like miners who wear memories as a necklace, the Onion Man, the Prince sleeping at the bottom of the world, Quiet Magic (which I want to master), and the chilling, yet sad Alleyman who is responsible for stealing shadows for the Hallow Queen.

And as always September's lessons ring true for the reader, wisdom is dropped like breadcrumbs. Here are a few of my favorites:

- “For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them.”

- “I’m a monster,” said the shadow of the Marquess suddenly. “Everyone says so.”

The Minotaur glanced up at her. “So are we all, dear,” said the Minotaur kindly. “The thing to decide is what kind of monster to be. The kind who builds towns or the kind who breaks them.”

- “For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.”

- “Because it's my fault, you see. I did it. And you must always clean up your own messes, even when your messes look just like you and curtsy very viciously when what they mean is, I am going to make trouble forever and ever.”

- “Do you suppose you will look the same when you are an old woman as you do now? Most folk have three faces—the face they get when they’re children, the face they own when they’re grown, and the face they’ve earned when they’re old. But when you live as long as I have, you get many more. I look nothing like I did when I was a wee thing of thirteen. You get the face you build your whole life, with work and loving and grieving and laughing and frowning.”

Books Like This:
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

REVIEW: Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns
by John Green

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” 

Quentin has had a special connection with his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman ever since they both found a dead guy in a park together when they were kids. They grew apart and are now in high school and he is a nerd, but he still feels deep down he knows the popular, funny, gutsy, effervescent girl. Then, one night, she crawls in his window and whisks him off on a night of bitter pranks and adventure. And then she disappears, leaving cryptic messages that seem to be only for Quentin to follow.

John Green books are tricky. They start out deceptively simple, and then wallop you with a whole sack full of truth. When I began to read this book, it felt like a first attempt at many of the ideas he played with in Looking for Alaska. However, Looking for Alaska was his first book. I worried he was just re-hashing the same material, and in some sense, he does. Troubled Manic Pixie Dream Girl has issues while the average timid Everyman must rise to the occasion and figure her out. However, while Looking for Alaska was about grief and finding your place in the world, and what you think of it, this book is how you never really know people. No matter how hard you try. John Green has talked about this many times; how literature is one of the few ways you can get inside a person's head and know them. In real life, everyone has their own picture of who you are, but none of them are complete. You assign meaning to actions, box people into categories. You are surprised when they "don't act like themselves." But in the end you can never really know what "themselves" is. I guess the only way you can really deal with that is to treat everyone with compassion.

The book itself is wonderfully funny, especially the scenes between Quentin and his friends. John writes excellently unique and unashamedly flawed characters who all speak in very distinct voices. I tended to like them even better than the glorious Margo Roth Spiegelman, but I think that was on purpose. The road trip sequence was perfection, and the drunken party where Quentin was sober rang very true.

I also love love love that John Green uses classic literature to underline messages in his YA books. He integrates it into the story, and shows how the classics can speak to us. This one makes you (and hopefully teens) want to read Leaves of Grass.

I wish I had more to say, but it has all gotten a bit fuzzy, since I read it a few weeks ago. Catching up!

Books Like This:
Looking For Alaska by John Green

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Re-Read: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

by Mary Shelley

“I expected this reception. All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.” 

Walton is a young, passionate explorer on an expedition to the Arctic. He is consumed with his own trials and tribulations and loneliness, until one day, a bedraggled, dying man crawls aboard his ship. Thinking he has finally found a friend, Walton is horrified to hear the haunted story of the man, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster he created.

I remember absolutely loving this story in high school. It was all about how man should not play God or the consequences would be dire. We learned all about the sublime, the concept of something so beautiful and awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time. It was certainly the best monster book I read (Dracula was too weirdly sexy and Jekyll and Hyde was boring if you knew the twist at the end). Reading it again, however, I was struck by so many new things! 

I can see why high school me was so in love with it. It is the perfect book for a high schooler. Everything is so dramatic! Victor is the center of his own universe. Everything lives to serve him. Everything that happens to him is either the best thing in the world, or the worst thing of all time. Granted he is dealing with a bit more than high school politics, but it is a very high school state of mind. Very melodramatic and full of big, juicy ideas of fate and death. 

During this re-read I was shocked to realize that the book was about something completely different than what everyone told me. It was not about how a scientist tried to play God and was punished for it. Victor succeeded in playing God. It worked. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Even though the creation is a newborn, and is unable to articulate or comprehend on an adult level, he grows quickly in mental and emotional capacity, so that within a year of being born, he can express himself better than I can! He is fully human. He is thought of as sublime, like the mountains or a thunderstorm, all naturally occurring things. The only downside is that he is ugly (rather than the angelic, noble visage Frankenstein intended), and those seeing him for the first time run in fear or hurt him. The resurrection process works. Frankenstein is not punished for trying to create life, for creating an unnatural aberration. He is punished for not taking responsibility for it. 

Victor spends a lot of this book avoiding things. When he first see's the monster, he faints, and then goes and takes a nap. And then is sick for a long time. He never thinks to ask where the monster went, he is just glad he is gone. In fact, he spends a lot of this book unconscious or on vacation in beautiful places, trying not to think about the monster. If I was the monster, I would get frustrated with him too!

It is assumed that the monster is responsible for the deaths of everyone in the book. And that is technically true. He does kill all but one of them. However, in each case, Victor could have prevented the death by taking responsibility for his actions. William's death is the result of Victor not taking responsibility for the care of the monster immediately upon creation. Justine's death is because Victor would not stand up before the court and say "I created a monster, and I saw him in the mountains where William was killed," because he thought people would think he was crazy. So Justine died for the murder of William because Victor did not speak up, even to say "I saw a scary man on the heath." His reputation was more important than Justine's life. 

Victor refused to make a bride for the lonely monster. He makes excuses, saying that the monster is evil, and so she will be evil, and they will have thousands of evil children (can they reproduce?), or they might not even like each other. Much flawed logic there. The monster is lonely and cruel because he has been treated with cruelty his whole life. He is not inherently evil. If anything. he is inherently good, and has learned cruelty from never having been treated with love. He has the most human-like war of love and hate within himself. He has as much of a chance as any other human has to be good and happy, perhaps more so, as he is so much more self-aware than many humans I have met. While I understand that it would suck to be the bride of the monster and wake up to a husband you hated, I say, give the crazy kids a chance? The monster takes full responsibility for the situation, and all Victor has to do is make her, and the monster will stop killing his friends and move to South America. But Victor throws a hissyfit and destroys the bride, and so Clerval dies. And then Frankenstein's own bride, Elizabeth (the epitome of all things good and angelic and flat) dies as well. 

As you can see, the monster has convinced me. While he does some horrible things, I know exactly why. He explains himself clearly, calmly, and logically, appealing to emotions as well as reason. He states, "If you would only accept me, I would be amazing and good and love you and everyone! I would frolic in the fields and pick daisies and put the star on the top of the Christmas tree" (not a direct quote). But Victor flails and blames fate and calls the monster names, and does not address any of the monster's concerns. Honestly, the monster makes a better argument. 

I am not saying that he should have killed everyone. I am saying that Victor needed to grow some balls and stop avoiding his responsibilities as creator. 

I was also rather surprised to realize that Victor creates the monster in an apartment in the city, not in a castle. There is no mention of electricity (aside from the fact that he is inspired by lightning striking a tree); he flatly refuses to tell us any details of how he did it. There is no Igor. The monster is afraid of fire when it burns him, but then he learns to make it, and it is all fine. He is initially inarticulate, but then learns to speak and read. There are no angry villagers, or pitch forks of any kind. No one even knows the monster exists. It is just Frankenstein vs. the monster pursuing each other until death. A tale in two strong voices wrestling with each other for all time.

I would love to see a faithful adaptation of the book, not a faithful adaptation of the original movies that were only based on the book in so much as there was a guy named Frankenstein who made a monster. The ideas of fate and responsibility are so juicy that it doesn't need to be "improved upon" by completely disregarding the stuff already there for new made up stuff. Anyway, that is a rant for my Dark Forest blog when I talk about Frankenstein in Once Upon a Time