Read ALL the Things: Valente, Murakami, Martin

Books added to the Shelf of Doom since last post: Embassytown, China Mieville; Pretty Hate Machine, Daphne Carr. To give myself more credit than necessary, I did order PHM before beginning this quest.

Currently reading: Didion, Didion, Didion

Summer does something to ambition. Or maybe that’s just me; I’ve spent my working life on either a publishing schedule (summers slow) or an alt-weekly schedule (summers slow, in theory), and I’m still adapting to the OMG humidity of Brooklyn in July. But I have been reading. And with every book I’ve picked up, I’ve wanted to just keep reading books by the same author. I resisted the urge to read more Ellen Gilchrist and read Haruki Murakami. I resisted the urge to read more Murakami and read George R. R. Martin. I resisted the urge to read more Martin … no, actually, I didn’t. But I did make a deal that I won’t get my hands on A Clash of Kings until I’ve read three more books — not these three — for this project.

But before all that, I read Catherynne M. Valente. I’ve been gnawing at my own thoughts about and around The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making for weeks and weeks and weeks, and for a handful of reasons. One, I don’t so much worry about doing the book justice — plenty of others have done that, and this is a reaction blog, not a review blog — as doing my own feelings about and around it justice. And two, many of those feelings are tied up in the internet, and social groups therein, and how you come to have Ideas about things and people you really aren’t sure you have any call to have said Ideas about.

An editor friend said, a few weeks ago, that Fairyland isn’t a book for children; it’s a book for grown-ups who want to feel like they did when they read certain books when they were kids. She said this after I said it was The Phantom Tollbooth. She also said it was Lewis, and Carroll, and we threw some other things into the conversation.

None of this is a bad thing; all of this is true. Fairyland is a lot of things tied up in a bow and then decorated with Valente’s personal flourishes and those of her tribe. Or at least, that’s how it feels when you come to it from a certain (and self-chosen) just-outside-the-window perspective; I don’t know the author, but I read her blog, and some of her friends are my friends, and so I feel like I’m watching their group at lunch across the quad while talking about zines with this girl named Aimee with whom I did such things in high school.

That isn’t a complaint, not in any way, shape or form. It’s an acknowledgment of how the way the internet brings us together — I love reading Valente’s blog, and I admire the respectful, enthusiastic, giving relationship with her readers and friends that is apparent from it — can also give so many more pieces of information that we glue into our mental scrapbooks, those pages that overlay every piece of writing we come to. Every story I’ve read or heard or paged through, every LiveJournal entry by everyone, but especially by the author, is another piece of the story I read when I open a book. My book starts where your book starts, but it also starts in a million other places. Books are like New York City; everyone has their own version. This is mine.

I can’t read Fairyland as if it were written by a stranger, a mysterious woman in a high castle. I don’t want to. But if I were little, if I were 10 or 12 and done with Juster and Lewis and Anderson and Cooper and moving on, I would, and it would be amazing. Because the other person this book is for is that particular kid who wants nothing more to walk further into that world – the one where authors wear red shiny dresses to their readings and know all the secrets of all the Fairylands they can imagine (which is a lot). They will pull you into that world with their personal, glorious, ordinary stories, and resistance is entirely futile.

Fairyland works very smartly to be for those kids. September, its heroine, is not a princess or a sweet blonde thing or a girl easily frightened (I’m suddenly reminded of young Amy Pond, in the Doctor Who episode “The Eleventh Hour”). She does get scared, but she pulls herself together, makes friends with a Wind and a Wyverary and a Marid, and completes the difficult quest the Marquess asks of her, only to find that this world, to borrow from Labyrinth, is not always what it seems, and that the rules of Fairyland are no more set in stone than the rules of our own, though they’re born in the same dark places. Mythology soaks the pages; seasons reach out and grab the unwary; the scope is immense and personal, the geography gloriously imprecise, the darkness as dark as the real fairy tales, the ones Valente knows very, very well; and everything smells just like it should, from a young woman made of soap to the treats of the Autumn Provinces to a salty naked girl on her own raft.

I love this book. It’s coy and honest and smart and sweet and dangerous, and it expects you to keep up.

I should say less about Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, not least because Murakami uses so few words to say so much. Like his Norwegian Wood, this book is slim and deceptively simple. A man grows up, missing the friend he made when he was young; he gets married, opens bars, has kids, is happy and isn’t. And then he finds the girl again. Everything goes just as you expect, which is to say that it goes every which way at once: happiness sits overlaid on deep uncertainty, and life’s plainest details reveal the character’s most hidden hearts. But that sounds slightly grandiose, which Murakami is not. Everything is normal-sized, including pain and regret and bitterness, even when they take over.

And then there’s George R. R. Martin, and here is where I will snap this post neatly off behind the “Continue Reading” button, because even though this book came out 15 years ago, a lot of us are just now discovering it and are not fond of spoilers (which there are plenty of in the next few paragraphs).

A Game of Thrones is just young enough that I had stopped reading epic (and less so) fantasy novels by the time it arrived. I spent most of a decade devouring just such books, from Mercedes Lackey to David Eddings to Melanie Rawn to the wildly underappreciated Jo Clayton (whose books are as much science fiction as fantasy, but let’s not split hairs). When I was in college, I decided I ought to try reading “real books” for a change, so I picked up Milan Kundera’s Immortality because it sounded funny and interesting and was cheap at The Strand.

This probably defines all my reading since. I never gave up on fantasy, but I didn’t keep up with all the new stuff, either, unless it was in the YA world. Then the internet started buzzing about Thrones because of the TV series, and, never one to resist enthusiastic internet buzz (see also: Doctor Who), I started watching.

TV isn’t fast enough. You have to wait! Patiently! I am not patient. I bought and read the book between episodes nine and ten, trying and failing to put it down when I caught up to the TV narrative. I liked being surprised by what happened on screen, but I just. couldn’t. wait.

I’m not going to go into elaborate plot details, because that’s the ENTIRE BOOK. Martin’s masterful shifts between the story’s multiple viewpoints are gentle and precise. It’s not so much that the voice changes; it’s the context, the touchstones that slide in and out of the narrative, the life that informs the close-but-not-first-person perspective. Never is this more clear than in the contrast between Arya, the sassy would-be swordswoman I can’t help but love despite her familiarity, and Sansa, her older sister, who dreams the dreams women, in her world, are expected to dream: marriage and kings and knights and romance.

Sansa seems a brat, at first, but painful, drastic growth hits her whether she likes it or not. Jousts are not always romantic displays of chivalry; a crown doesn’t turn a selfish boy into a gentle and wise king. Likewise, teenage Daenerys, at first a quiet girl who just wants to go home, experiences a series of events that transform her into a young woman with an entirely new set of motivations and desires. Dany too seemed too fantasy-familiar, all white-blonde hair and violet eyes, but Martin is, like a million people have pointed out, playing with these things, and if he doesn’t upset the fantasy apple-cart right from the get-go, it’s because he’s got an entire world to build first. It takes all 800 pages to get to the point when all the seemingly major male characters are dead and a teenage girl is poised to well and truly take over the world. That this happens isn’t the beauty of it; how it happens is: subtly, slowly, through character growth and the terrible decisions of men and women good and nasty and just doing their best.

(My nitpicky side is distracted by the frequent appearance of commas where periods or semi-colons ought to be (there’s an argument for them, since they mostly appear in dialogue or characters’ thoughts, but they bother me). I would also like to never again read the word “waddled” regarding the way Tyrion walks. Still: more, please. Now.)

Read ALL the Things: Valente, Murakami, Martin

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