The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

I love this book.

I don’t even know what more I can say beyond that sentence. Obviously, I can (and will) elaborate and explain why I love this book, but the single most important fact of this review/rambling is that first sentence. That, and that I love Catherynne M. Valente, but we already knew that.

September lives in Omaha, Nebraska and has become exceedingly bored with her current life. Furthermore, she’s lonely; her father’s off in the war and her mother works at the factory all day. When the Green Wind appears at her window, asking if she would like to come to Fairyland, September doesn’t have to think twice before she says yes. And so begins her adventure in the world of Fairyland where she meets extraordinary people, visits amazing and potentially dangerous places, and undertakes a quest to retrieve an item for the Marquess, the childish, greedy ruler of Fairyland.

First off, the writing is pure joy to read. It’s honest, clever, and imaginative, all at once. The book is written in the style of traditional children’s stories like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and it’s so full of life and spirit. I know it’s been said before by multitudes of people, but the best children’s stories are written by those who are still partially children themselves, those who have never forgotten how children think and how children logic works (which, in many ways, makes much more sense than adult logic). Most important though is to see the world as children see it, and see it for the gloriously strange place it is. For some silly, stupid reason, a sense of wonder is equated with children and childishness. Adults can’t be too astounded by something strange or unusual that they’ve just seen, otherwise they will be considered naïve. I won’t say this book made me feel like I was a child again, but it definitely reawakened my sense of wonder. I wanted the Green Wind to come for me so I could go on magical adventures too. After finishing this book, I felt like anything could happen, and that is what the best fantasy, or even the best books do: open up possibilities and allow us to dream things we wouldn’t have dared to before.

September is old enough to realize that the world contains dangers and disappointments, but young enough to believe in magic and fairies, and leave home without a second thought to travel to Fairyland. What she wants is to be the protagonist in her own tale, and she definitely is that. She’s inquisitive, smart, resourceful, brave, and she’s quite a hand at fixing things and figuring out how they work. In short, she is the most awesome person ever. She would have been my hero when I was her age. Hell, I’d consider her to be so now! Similarly awesome is A-through-L, the wyverary (half-wyvern, half-library) who knows everything about everything, so long as it begins with any of the letters A through L. Even the Marquess, who’s ostensibly the villain, gets her moment to shine in the end. There are no black-and-white characters, situations, or solutions to anything in this book, and, especially in a children’s book, it makes the story all the better.

As expected, there’s some thought given to fairy tales and quests and what one must do when one knows they’re in a fairytale, and the confusion that sets in when things don’t follow the path that’s expected. In case I haven’t made this clear before, I absolutely love meta-stories. They’re one of my favorite things ever and I will glom a book even more so if it contains that element.

Also, Fairyland is such a wonderfully creative world packed with all sorts of creatures, beasts, and creations, such as a soap golem, a heard of wild bicycles, and so much else that I don’t want to say here because I worry about spoiling too much of the awesomeness. Still, Fairyland has its troubles, and Catherynne M. Valente even manages to sneak a few tidbits in about topics such as cultural appropriation, bureaucracy, and how governments work. Even so, Fairyland is written with wonderment and a sense of adventure, but it’s also written with fun. It’s clear throughout that Catherynne M. Valente had a lot of fun thinking up Fairyland and putting all the pieces together. When I went to her author event, she said that she could write Fairyland books forever, and I fervently hope she does.

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is one of the best books I have read all year. There is practically nothing that I dislike about it. It’s hard for me to be objective and stand back to analyze or pick apart the book. Instead, I simply feel so much love for it, and I urge everyone else who reads it to feel, rather than think and analyze. Remember when you were a child and stories were some of the most magical things in the world that made you feel like you could do anything? This book is why.

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Published in: on May 23, 2011 at 6:55 PM  Comments (1)  

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

I finished reading this book the night I met Catherynne M. Valente, and as a result, it feels a little weird to write about it. It’s also going to be really difficult. I almost don’t feel qualified to talk about this book, but I will do my best.

Deathless is essentially a retelling of one of the Russian stories starring Koschei the Deathless (as far as I know, I am not familiar at all with Eastern European myths. The only character I was familiar with in the entire story was Baba Yaga). However, in this version, the star of the show is Marya Morevna, who first witnessed magic when she was six and saw a bird fall out of a tree, turn into a man, and marry her eldest sister. She is sixteen when Koschei comes knocking on her door and spirits her off to his hidden kingdom called Buyan, and so he becomes her husband. Koschei is the Tsar of Life and is constantly fighting a war against the Tsar of Death that is “always going badly”, and all of this takes place against the backdrop of Stalinist Russian, particularly World War Two. Over the course of the story, Marya struggles to come into her own now that she is part of a myth and thus has a role to play that she didn’t agree to, much less fully understand.

The reason it’s so difficult to talk about this book is because there are so many different threads running crisscross through the story, and they all relate to each other and form a cohesive whole. The story is based on an old myth, and as such, it has that timeless, larger-than-life quality about it, because myths are some of the first explanations for why the world is the way it is. Thus, the story follows certain rules – for instance, many actions occur in threes. This particular retelling explores the concepts of life and death and how they are each one side of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other, and for large-scale death to even have the impact it does, there has to always exist the potential for further life. In this case, life does not mean living in pure happiness and free of pain. Life can be even more brutal than actual death, but it wouldn’t be life if there weren’t any possibility of pain or eventuality of death (surprisingly, this all fits in ridiculously well with my anthro final about Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty that I finished writing last week).

Because this is all a myth, an important aspect is that this story has constantly played out and will continue to play out throughout all of time, and this particular incarnation is merely one more repetition. Koschei always steals a young maiden and marries her, a man named Ivan always falls in love with her, and Ivan will eventually go into the cellar to find Koschei chained up, and then he’ll steal the maiden once again. Marya’s story is largely about growing up, transforming from an impressionable, young girl who believes magic will save her into a hardened woman who is familiar with the brutality of war and the knowledge that magic is no less harsh and unforgiving than real life. I also enjoyed Koschei’s transformation from a powerful, distant demon that seduces maidens as easily as breathing and demands their utter obedience into a man who would submit himself to anything for the sake of the one he loves. And so he does. Love is like any other relationship, a continuous exchange of power. It all depends on who wields it, how, and why.

Setting this story against the backdrop of the beginning of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s regime was an excellent choice, particularly concerning the act of hiding deeds and identities and following the Party line. Ostensibly, everyone in Russia is a member of the Party, but, like Buyan, there is always another world hidden underneath where the real truth exists. In particular, the ending worked perfectly with this idea. Similarly, the Revolution and World War Two affected the outcome of the war between the Tsars of Life and Death because the Tsar of Death is able to use the lives of those who have died to fight on his side, and thus an army of the deceased can overwhelm the living. This book is incredibly dark and bleak, but there are many moments of friendship, of family, and love (of course). Even in the end when the war is over, there’s still the knowledge that the story will begin again, in a future time.

Like I said, I don’t feel at all like my review/rambling does this book justice. Catherynne M. Valente’s books are those that you reread over and over in order to uncover and absorb all the details and layers that eluded you the first time. The book is not easy to read in that you can skim every other page and still follow the story. Here, you need to slow down, take your time, and savor every single passage because there’s a little something hidden within each one. Deathless is a dark, yet lovely book, and one that I will be definitely be returning to in the future.

Published in: on May 20, 2011 at 9:16 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Tale of the Epically Awesome Book Event

This post will consist almost entirely of pure fangush and OMGs. Just FYI.

So, today I met Catherynne M. Valente. Well, technically I met her yesterday, as I’m writing this after midnight, but whatever. To be specific then, on May 18, 2010 in Portland, Oregon at 4 PM I attended Catherynne M. Valente’s reading as part of her tour for her newly released book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (is that not the coolest title or what?)

Catherynne M. Valente has become one of my absolute favorite writers. However, I feel like I am incapable of describing her books. She writes retellings of fairytales, and within those fairytales, she writes about those fairytales and what they do and how they work. Basically, she writes about life. Her imagination knows no bounds and her writing is some of the most gorgeous writing I have ever read. However, the best thing is that when you read one of her books, you can tell with every sentence you read how much love she has for what she’s writing. In sum, her books are why I read, why life is worth living to read books like these.

So yeah. Awesome writer. She’s also an awesome person and ridiculously friendly. I had definitely not expected that. The event was really nice and intimate since there was only a small crowd. She read a chapter from her new book (there’s a wyverary! who’s the son of a wyvern and library!) and there was a Q & A section afterword. I didn’t ask anything because I couldn’t think of a question, so I mostly sat there listening to her speak, fangirling so hard and feeling that what she had just read, the responses to the questions she gave, everything felt so right. My thoughts were pretty much, “This. Yes. Everything! Just yes!”

Afterward, I went to have my copy of her book autographed. While standing in line, I tried to think of what I could say to her, but I didn’t even know what was the right thing to say. I wanted to be sincere, but everything I mentally rehearsed sounded fake and stupid. What does one say to a person whom you consider to be a literary rock star? When I came up to the table with my book in hand, I managed to not babble a stream of incoherent nonsense, told her my name, and thanked her for signing my book. And then I went to poke around the YA section of the bookstore, cursing myself for just standing there mutely as she signed my book.

Remember how I said she was super friendly? This is where that part comes in. After a couple of minutes, I screwed my courage to the sticking place, walked back up to her, and told her that I wasn’t able to say this before, but thank you, thank you for writing books I love to read, thank you for… I don’t even have the words to express my thanks. And then she gave me a big hug. After that, I managed to say that I would be at WisCon and that I was super excited to see her there again at the Fairyland launch party. She asked me what my name was again, and after I told her, she looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll remember you.”

I think I died a little, at that moment.

Everything about meeting Catherynne M. Valente made my entire day, if not the rest of my week. There’s probably some hyperbole in this post, as well as some hero-worship, but I don’t care. I put authors on pedestals, even though I know writers are normal human beings and that writing as a profession is anything but glamorous. But, to me, writers perform magic. They are magicians that make the impossible, possible. And I got to meet and connect with one of those magicians. Needless to say, I am even more excited for WisCon than I already was, and I cannot wait to meet her again and say hello.

And, of course, I now have my very own, signed copy of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making! Literally there has been nothing about this experience that has not made me deliriously, ecstatically happy.

Published in: on May 19, 2011 at 1:16 AM  Comments (2)  

Kissing and How it’s Complicated

So. Another post about asexuality. Except this one is a lot less happy than the first two have been. But hey, it had to happen sometime.

This past weekend, my college celebrated Renn Fayre, which is our big end-of-the-year party held in part to celebrate the seniors who have finished their theses. It’s pretty much a cross between big, outdoor fair and Woodstock (this year it was even more like Woodstock because it kept raining on and off over the entire three days, leaving campus extremely wet and muddy). The first major event of Renn Fayre on Friday afternoon was Thesis Parade, where the entire campus gathers in front of the library to celebrate while the seniors burn copies of their theses in a big bonfire and everyone else pours champagne on the seniors.

A widespread Thesis Parade tradition is for everyone to make out with various people. Most people do (and should) ask the other person if they would like to kiss, in which case the person will either respond yes and kissing will ensue, or no, in which case the two people will probably hug. Also, not everyone will ask to kiss everyone, and hugging is a completely acceptable alternative. This year at Thesis Parade I hugged many people, kissed no one, and generally had a good time. I am not the only one who doesn’t kiss other people during Thesis Parade, and it is not the case that anyone has called me out or made fun of me for it. However, I couldn’t help but feel a little odd about the whole thing.

No matter how acceptable hugging is, within the larger context of Thesis Parade, it still seems to me like it is an “alternative” in the manner of something being “second-best”. Kissing is what you’re supposed to do, hugging is fine too, but it’s not what the celebration largely entails. Many people kiss their friends during Thesis Parade, and I would give hugs to people who I knew would be kissing other friends whom they knew about as well as they knew me. This does lead me to feel like I’m not fully participating in Thesis Parade, and that I am somehow obligated to do so in that manner. It makes me feel like I’m not close to people, because obviously if I were, I’d kiss them, because it’s our big, happy, celebration time, right? And if friends normally kiss their friends and you don’t kiss your friend, are you less of a friend? (I know, this concern is ridiculously situation-specific).

There were two occasions where people tried to kiss me without asking and I turned my head away, and I felt bad about it afterward. Not because they tried to kiss me without asking – I had not problem with that, as I happened to know these people reasonably well and they weren’t being aggressive about it. I felt bad because I felt like I shouldn’t have turned my head away. Even though I knew my reaction was a natural response, I felt bad. Even though I probably would have felt embarrassed if I had kissed them because I would have been worrying the entire time whether I was actually Doing It Right and kissing them correctly, I felt bad.

I don’t instinctively want to kiss people, even when I’m romantically attracted to them. I’ve known this for some time now, but I still haven’t entirely come to grips with it. Even more so than sex, kissing is one of those activities that children are constantly exposed to as something that everyone will want to do one day. In most TV shows and movies with a romantic story deemed acceptable for young minds, the relationship culminates with the boy and the girl kissing, usually for the first time. Once you get your hormones and go through puberty, you will want to kiss people (preferably of the opposite gender). Fact. Non-negotiable. End of discussion. If you don’t want to kiss people, you are still a child who’s waiting to grow up. God help the person who’s 17 and still hasn’t kissed anyone yet, and don’t even talk about someone who’s in their twenties or thirties and has never kissed another person.

This isn’t something I’ve really seen discussed concerning asexuality, but there seems to me a huge link between asexuality and children in the public perspective. In an anthropology book I was reading about the gendering of elementary school children, the author labeled the kids who hadn’t undergone puberty or shown any interest in the opposite gender (the book was written in the eighties) as “asexual”. I understand her logic. Kids don’t feel sexual attraction until they reach a certain age, so they are, in effect, “asexual” until they experience it. However, if a child is “asexual” until they experience sexual attraction, does that mean teenager and adult asexuals are still seen, in some sense, as children? Because other people believe that they don’t have the physical/emotional/whatever capacity to be sexually attracted to another person? There have been a number of discussions about the intersection of asexuality and having a mental disability, and a further connection to that discussion is that other people see asexual and mentally disabled people as not being fully “adult” i.e. they aren’t properly functioning members of larger society because they can’t participate fully in the ways they are expected to. People who are asexual/mentally disabled/both are seen in some respects as being closer to children than they are adults.

In the end, I’m not too bothered about my feelings concerning Thesis Parade and what I did and didn’t do because in the grand scheme of things, the making out during Thesis Parade isn’t particularly important. I do have some concerns for the future if I ever were in a romantic relationship, because I would feel some obligation to kiss them (and I can do it, it takes effort and I have to work around my mental block to do it, but I can do it). I’m comfortable knowing that I don’t want to have sex and telling a potential significant other that fact. However, I culturally categorize kissing as a romantic activity as well as sexual activity, and I would like to express romantic attraction in that manner, but I also don’t want to because it feels like there’s no way to kiss someone and have it not be sexual. Also, for the most part, I don’t physically want to. Conundrum…

Anyway, I don’t really have any answers, nor will I likely have some anytime soon. My thoughts are sort of all over the place right now. Just another one of those things to think about on a night when you’re vainly trying to ignore the fact you have a gazillion final papers you’re not writing so that you can write this blog post instead.

Published in: on May 10, 2011 at 12:41 AM  Leave a Comment