East of the Sun, West of the Moon

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Fairy tales are, I am beginning to suspect, an attempt to tame the untameable.

Something I’ve noticed as I’ve read more old fairy tales is that they follow very distinct patterns. The cast of characters changes, but the events–particularly in a collection like East of the Sun–are entirely predictable. Read four or five of these stories and you will start seeing shapes in of the mad, beautiful quests. Hopelessness, in tales like these, is not the end of a journey: instead, it is a doorway into another story. A doorway out of despair.

Daughters vanish? Wife disappear? No one can save ______? That’s all right.

In the troll’s lair is a sword that cannot be picked up. Find the draught the troll drinks: it will make you strong.

Your husband has forgotten you, and is engaged to someone else. She will take your treasure in exchange for a night by his bed, but she will drug him first. But on the third night, he will refuse to drink her wine, and when he sees you he will remember.

The stranger is a hero in disguise, and he will save you.

Your husband, or your wife, has vanished because you disobeyed an injunction. In your wandering search, be kind and ask for help of all those you meet. Eventually, they will show you the way East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

The Crossover

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I absolutely did not expect to like this book. It won the Newbery and it was super cheap on Amazon, so I made myself open it up. I’m not a sports person, I never was, and I figured “Lord, one more basketball book.”

Good God was I wrong. I may never have been more wrong in my life.

This novel is alive in a way most novels only dream of being. It echoes, it dances, it turns and leaps and moves. It is half novel, half poem-yet somehow it is most alive not when read aloud, but on the page. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me feel alive.

Seriously, this is probably one of the best pieces of literature of the decade. Sit down and read it. You won’t feel like you’re sitting still for long.

The Geography of Bliss

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What if you went to a series of countries, made vast generalizations about them based on the information from local expats (not actual locals), and tried to figure out what would make you in particular happier based on these uneducated generalizations? Then you would be the author of “The Geography of Bliss,” who at different times claimed things like “Qatar has no culture,” “all Swiss people hate envy,” and “Moldovans do not complain.” This in spite of the fact that 1. He could find almost no Qataris to talk to (I’m sure that the prevalence of migrant workers was irrelevant), and when he did he pinned everything on their religion, 2. He barely talked to actual Swiss people, and 3. a huge percentage of Moldova is living abroad in other countries as migrant workers, leaving an age-skewed society behind.

He ignores history in the vast majority of cases. On the rare occasions that he does pay attention to history, he claims that it is because a particular culture–Qatar and Bhutan, for instance–has been totally unable to develop beyond their recent history. Which is ridiculous. Apparently, it makes sense that Qatar is a cultural desert because a generation ago all Qataris were desert people. However, even though a generation and a half ago Iceland was dirt poor, their history is largely irrelevant to their current cultural flowering.

But I didn’t read this book hoping for a history lesson. I read it hoping to hear about what people in other countries were doing that improved their quality of life so that they were happier than the average American. I wanted to know about the psychology, the worldviews, the daily practices of other people. Instead, I found out a lot about the expatriate experience in other countries. The greatest lesson I learned from this book is that expatriates make terrible cultural informants.

The Moon King

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This one was a bit hard to swallow, I have to admit. Technology beyond understanding holds in place a moon, orbiting very close to a city and exerting an emotional and physical effect on the city’s inhabitants. At the full moon, everyone has a big orgiastic party. At the dark moon, everyone sinks into despair and hate, murders and rapes are committed–and the city itself buckles, rusting and breaking, fruit spoiling, meat growing mold.

The novel follows three people–the vessel of the current Moon King, the daughter of a woman who fancies herself the Moon Queen, and a policeman archetype. The book at first appears to be a straight science fiction, but magic works its way in through the cracks and seeps through the novel.

The book purports to be about the struggle to tame nature, and about the tension between progress and conservatism (not political, that). Other themes work their way in and are frustratingly left hanging: male vs. female, belief and what it creates.

In the end, I think the reason I had real trouble was my frustration over the connections between the characters. They are all clearly supposed to be connected, but I had trouble understanding the full connection. Maybe it’s just because I read it too fast, but it felt like it fell into the classic trap of endings: the final piece wasn’t as well knit together as the excellence of the first few hundred pages promised. Things that should have been a bit more explicit were left obscure, the roles of certain plot elements were left open. But maybe that was just how it had to be to reach the final ending of the moon.

Tales from Rugosa Coven

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We all know that there are Wiccans around. Not only Wiccans, but a whole variety of pagans and “new age” believers, integrating everything from Atlantis to Stonehenge into their beliefs.

In this novel, the magic is real. The crystals are real, the auras are real, the tarot cards are 100% real. Magic is hiding in plain sight.

This book won the Mythopoetic Award for 2015, and I think it did so because of the ordinary way it integrated magic into the real world. Witches struggle with OCD and mixed-religion marriages, with bad parenting and divorce, with abusive husbands and marital strain–and at every turn, there is magic.

The witches of Rugosa Coven aren’t some secret society, and there are no cabals of magic ruling the world. These witches are obvious suspects like the local fortune-tellers, and they’re surprises like the PTA dad. It takes all sorts, and some of those sorts are live lives brimming with magic.