"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.

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