"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Thursday, February 20, 2014

REVIEW: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

You may remember that this book was one of my Christmas presents to myself. However, it took two months and a very nasty cold to actually get me to read it. So first of all, if you are currently suffering from a cold or otherwise ill, bedridden, or just feeling lousy, this is the perfect book for you! When I'm sick, I always feel like regressing a little: staying tucked up in bed, eating comfort food, having other people take care of me. And truthfully, as I've discovered this week, the adult world has no room for sick people. Going to work with a stuffy nose sucks and is completely unprofessional, but go to work you must if you want to hang onto your Working Adult card. After work, though, you can quickly slip into your pjs, make a hot cocoa, and pick up this book. Because what better way to regress than reading a fairy tale?

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (that's the last time I'm typing out the full title, by the way) is an especially delightful fairy tale. The author, whose excellent name is Catherynne Valente (perfect for writing fairy stories), seems to have been inspired by Alice in Wonderland, The Neverending Story, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and other favorites from my childhood. Her omniscient narrator is cheeky and droll and enjoys puns. Like Lewis Carroll and Lemony Snicket, she skews her writing to please children and adults simultaneously, without ever making her younger audience feel left out or talked over. Acutally, I imagine that children who read this book get to feel very grown-up and knowledgeable, because all of Valente's references and riffs are based on other children's stories. She picks out the tales in which we are all experts since childhood. In the same vein, I appreciated her use of multiple folktale traditions, not just the well-known European ones.

While paying homage to and riffing on various traditions, Valente brings her own particularly lovely voice to the telling of September's adventures in Fairyland - a blend of humor and wisdom. And the story itself takes plenty of unique turns. Each character that September encounters is fully realized and individualized. They fulfill the roles of the traditional folktale as they help or hinder the heroine along her journey, but they never feel like stock characters.

Valente also excels at making the world these characters live in feel real and tangible. Here's a bit from her description of a magical bath that September must take before entering the capital of Fairyland:

"Lye lifted September up suddenly and put her down in the first tub, which was really more like an oak barrel, the kind you store wine in, if you need to store rather a lot of wine, for it was enormous. September's head ducked immediately under the thick, bright gold water. When she bobbed up, the smell of it wrapped her up like a warm scarf: the scent of fireplaces crackling and warm cinnamon and autumn leaves crunching underfoot. She smelled cider and a rainstorm coming. The gold water clung to her in streaks and clumps, and she laughed. It tasted like butterscotch."

Descriptions like that make you want to dive right through the pages into that bath and explore September's magical world. Which is appropriate, since that is exactly what the book is about: a little girl who loves fairy tales and finds her way into Fairyland to have her own adventure.

Or, I should say, adventures, since this is part of an ongoing series. Two more books are out already, with very long names as well. I might not be able to wait until my next cold to read them, though.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

TAG: Top 5 Unread Authors

Yesterday I was cleaning my room, and I realized something crazy: I've reached book saturation.

Temporarily, of course. It's not like I actually own all the books I'd like to own (I think that'd be impossible). But my bookshelves are overflowing, and I don't want to mar my beautiful organization-by-color any more by building unsightly piles of books all over the place.

There are two solutions:

a) Audiobooks. They don't take up space! And are also brilliant for the long bus rides I take to and from my new internship in the city. I'm currently listening to The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty. Before that, I listened to A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. They take a bit longer to finish than normal books, but that's outweighed by the pleasure of being read to and the convenience of multitasking - I listen when I'm riding public transit, cooking, knitting, or anything where I need to use my hands but not think too hard.

b) Actually read the books that are already on my shelves. Because most of them have been languishing there for years, falling further and further down my to-read list.

So, in the spirit of reading the books I've been meaning to read for ages, here's a tag I got from kayleyreads's excellent book channel YouTube. A list of the first five authors that came to mind top five authors I haven't read. In no particular order:

1. China Miéville.
I heard him speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival two years ago when his book Railsea came out. He was entertaining and interesting and honest about the somewhat trivial inspiration (wanting to rewrite Moby Dick with moles instead of whales)  for what sounded like a rich and not at all trivial book. More importantly, perhaps, his fans in the audience asked very intelligent questions - a good sign, right? As far as I can tell, Miéville write something in the realm of sci-fi/dystopia/speculative fiction, and I'm on the hunt for authors who do that sort of thing without letting style and sophistication slide (see the rant about clunky YA fiction in my previous post).

2. Muriel Barbery
Several people have highly recommended Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog to me. It's actually apparently the favorite book of one of my friends. So I have a sort of obligation to read it, right? But really, it's not an obligation, because it sounds like a lovely book. Moreover, I recently found out she's written another book with a food theme - the way to my heart. And the two books have complementary covers! I love that. The main thing that's been keeping me from reading Barbery is that I want to read the original French versions, so I just have to track those down. And sadly, the French versions don't have the charming matchy covers. Le sigh.

3. Jorge Luis Borges
Obviously a classic author. I was in a theater class where we used short excerpts from his writing, and I loved the philosphical/magical tone. My interest was only further piqued when I was researching David Mitchell for my dissertation and found out Borges was an influence. On top of that, I haven't really read any South American authors, so that's a gap I'd like to fill. I read a piece of Roberto Bolano's gigantic novel, 2666, but Borges somehow seems a lot more approachable than Bolano, so I'm putting off finishing 2666 and thinking about tackling Borges instead.

4. Rainbow Rowell
EVERYBODY on the internet seems to be talking about Rainbow Rowell. Unsuprising, since she published two extremely popular YA novels last year and now has a new book, which I think it for adults. I've been graciously lent Eleanor & Park and Fangirl and can't wait to read them and see what all the fuss is about. But I believe I'll start with Eleanor & Park, because I've been warned that it's a bit sad. That way, I can cheer myself up afterwards with Fangirl!

5. The Brontës (collectively)
Well, there's the gorgeous covers, of course. One of the best things about reading the classics is getting to choose from the many beautiful editions. But appealing covers aside, I really need to read these ladies. I love old-fashioned writing. I love great sweeping stories. I saw the Jane Eyre movie. There's really no reason not to have read at least one Brontë book by now. Plus, as a literature student (I know I'm not a student anymore, but old habits die hard), I want to read the old stuff that so many people refer to and riff off of, and I feel like these books have a relatively large influence over modern literature as well as certain feminist discussions. So this is one of those obvious, can't believe you've never read so-and-so situations. I'd better get on that.

Acutally, only two of those authors currently reside on my bookshelf. So I seem to have chosen a third solution to my problem:

c) Continue to ignore the books I actually own and, instead, dream about books I want to buy but won't, because my shelves are too full.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review: The Book Thief

I've got quite a long backup of books I've finished but haven't reviewed yet, but let's start with one of the winners. The Book Thief has been much talked about and lauded, and the movie just came out this year (I haven't seen it). But the hype did nothing to diminish the impact this little book had on me. It really is one of the best books I've read in any of the genres it falls into: WWII stories, YA literature, books with experimental narrative voices. In particular, it was such a refreshing read after wading through some extremely clunky YA writing. [Side note/rant: My YA reading habit started as a welcome break from the heavy experimental fiction I read last year on my master's course. It morphed into an effort to familiarize myself with the YA section of the bookstore where I work. It has ended with annoyance at how the publishing industry ghettoizes and panders to teenage readers. But I digress....]

In case, by some chance, you haven't heard of this book, some orientation: The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, from the year she is adopted by the Hubermanns, a kind couple in a small town outside Munich, to the year that allied bombs start falling on that town. During that time, Liesel learns to read and grows from a child to a young woman. It's quite a modest scope of action, but set against the backdrop of WWII, it obviously takes on a larger meaning.

The book's seemingly small scope distinguishes it from the immense number of books published about WWII (I didn't realize quite how many there are until I lived in England, where that particular portion of history is still extremely vivid for many people). It doesn't set out to tell the whole story of the war or to encompass the entire (and unencompassable) tragedy of it. It doesn't even try to tell the whole story of Liesel's life. Her early childhood, before the Hubermanns adopt her, and her life after the war would probably be just as book-worthy, but Zusak chooses to focus on just the slice of her life that intersects with the war.

In fact, it's not really the war Liesel's story intersects with, but rather that of the other main character, a personified Death who narrates the book. It's rare to find a book with a really interesting narrative point of view, now that first person, collective voices, and unreliable narrators have all been tried out and worn out. But Zusak handles his conceptual narration extremely well. He often allows us to forget about it and immerse ourselves in the story but never actually breaks character, so that, when Death reassert itself as the point of view, it's never jarring.

This device also allows him to do justice to the wider historical significance of the events in the book, because Death, as we are constantly reminded, was kept very busy during the war years. To Death, Liesel's story is a distraction, but a welcome one that represents a glimmer of humanity amid the rampant inhumanity of war. That, in essence, is the function of almost every WWII story out there. Through the framing of Death's narration, however, Zusak acknowledges that directly. The taking on of Death as a narrator turns out not to be a presumptive literary trick, but a way toward greater humility in telling a single story, especially that of a German, during WWII.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Tristan & Yseult @ Berkeley Rep

I've been wanting to write about this play for a while, and now that I've gone back to see it a second time, I think it's about time to put my love for it into words. It's a rare treat to see a live theater piece twice, and it usually requires repeating the experience pretty soon, before the show leaves town. But with Tristan & Yseult - or with any show by Kneehigh Theater, for that matter - there's so much richness to the production and so much happening on stage that the second time was as fresh as the first.

Actually, this particular play seems to invite you to return. It's based, after all, on a very old and very often retold story. The mythic, doomed love of the two main characters has been repeated in hundreds of different ways and forms, and Kneehigh's production acknowledges that while putting its own twist on the tale.

First, a little background: Kneehigh is a theater company based in Cornwall. Many of the actors have worked together for many years, and all of them are insanely talented. They sing, dance, play instruments, do acrobatics - oh, and act. During rehearsals, the entire company lives and works in a set of isolated barns in Cornwall, and their total unity and playfulness together onstage shows how important that practice is. Finally, they aim to tell stories from or about Cornwall itself, whether contemporary or ancient.

In the case of Tristan & Yseult, Kneehigh blends the old with the new. One character, King Mark, speaks in rhyming verse - a nod to the old tale - while the others speak normally. The production is suffused with music, including extracts from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, original music that hearkens back to medieval ballads, and pop hits about unrequited love from only a few decades ago.

Most of the songs are (flawlessly) delivered by a live band called the Club of the Unloved. The Unloved also become the chorus of the show, commenting on the action, and sometimes even stepping into the raised, circular platform in the middle of the stage to inform or encourage the central characters at crucial moments. The chorus could be a reference to another tradition of ancient storytelling - Greek drama - except that, over the course of the show, they become as sympathetic and individuated as the protagonists. With this modernist twist, Kneehigh's production turns our attention to the average, unremarkable characters. The Unloved, the show asserts, deserve to tell their story as much as the lovers Tristan and Yseult. Slowly, characters from the central story join the chorus - King Mark, who loves Yseult; the maid, Brangian, who loves King Mark; and others who reveal the tragic ripple effects of the central love story.

The production presents a very complex and sophisticated version of an old tale, but its style is often charmingly simple and transparent. There are no set changes, and the architecture of the set is plain to see: a central circle that draws our attention to the dichotomy between beloved heroes and unloved onlookers, a mast-like pole that evokes Tristan's sea voyage, a platform for the band, and a raised walkway for dramatic entrances and exits. In one scene, the chorus members transform the setting into a forest simply by donning some outrageous fern hats and manning a collection of dove hand puppets that flap around the stage.

Allowing us to see the mechanics of theatrical storytelling is one of Kneehigh's trademarks. Although the stage is constantly busy and the choreography complex, no element is extraneous. They never dumb things down or smooth things over for the audience. Instead, they present us with a delightful jumble of song, dance, and poetry, and of tragedy and comedy - just enough to spark our own imaginations - and allow us to fill in the rest. In this play in particular, which celebrates the average and the unloved, it is easy to slip completely into the world of the production, supplying emotions from our own experiences of love, or its lack. So, in substance and style, Tristan & Yseult is a remarkably accessible production for any kind of modern audience, though, at the same time, it recalls the particular history and heritage of Cornwall through an ancient tale.