“One Crazy Summer” and The Birth of Consciousness

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In just about every Diana Wynne Jones novel, there is a moment in which a child looks at an adult and realizes that behind that face is another person. A flawed person, a person with their own strengths, weaknesses, and failings. A complex person who is capable of anything.

It’s a moment of consciousness, and in “One Crazy Summer,” the growth of her consciousness is the subject of the entire novel. Her consciousness of herself as a young black woman, her consciousness of the historical moment she lives in–but most of all, her consciousness of her mother.

Abandonment is never an easy thing for a child to deal with. Abandonment by a mother, which is so unusual that it means constant reminders of the child’s strangeness, is perhaps even harder to deal with than a father’s abandonment. But to hold onto hate and resentment is poisonous, and it takes all summer for her to finally release her pent up frustration at her mother, to shout her blame.

That’s when she finally learns her mother’s story. That’s when she finally sees the person under “mother.” When she understands that to be a woman is not always an easy thing, and that sometimes adults have to choose between betraying themselves and betraying those who love them.

The question of names is a recurring theme in “One Crazy Summer.” Black Panthers choose new names and call each other “brother” and “sister.” Her mother has chosen a new name, and writes her poetry under it. And her mother refuses to use her youngest daughter’s name, because it was not the name she chose for her.

But her mother has to change too, and everyone must choose their own names. She makes the choice to tell her little sister what her first name was. She gives her little sister ownership of that name. And it doesn’t disempower her mother–instead, it makes them closer.

We are all who we choose to be. Those choices define us. And every kid has to learn that the adults in their lives have made choices. And to grow up is to understand why those choices were made. Why those names were chosen.

The Tale of Despereaux and the Narrative Voice

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The fourth wall is what stands between the audience and the story. The fourth wall is itself the narrator in most books, and it often comments on the story before it. The narrator mediates the world of the story to us, but it does not speak to us.

Except when it does. In “The Tale of Despereaux ,” the fourth wall is as friendly to the audience as it is to the characters in the story. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is not just to get the joy of a delightful story, to watch the rise of an underdog, the rescue of a princess, the creation of a perfect villain. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is to make a friend. The narrator is telling you the story, and the narrator is kind to you. The narrator is your friend, and thus the story is more real and true.

“Uprooted,” The Fairy Tale, and Making the Old Into Something New

“Genre fiction, as Terry Pratchett pointed out, is a stew. You take stuff out of the pot, you put stuff back. The stew bubbles on.”

The premise of “Uprooted” isn’t original. A girl is locked in a tower on the edge of a magical forest, imprisoned by a strange and powerful figure. In the kingdom outside, a queen has gone missing and the prince is searching for her.

Novik does not battle her reader’s expectations, like many writers trying to be original do now (*cough*GeorgeRRMartin*cough*). The girl escapes her tower, but not before falling in love with her captor. The queen is saved by the heroics of her prince. The forces of evil are defeated, and the forces of good triumph. She knows what she has promised the reader, and she does not scruple to give satisfaction.

But, to continue Sir Pratchett’s metaphor, there are strange spices in this particular bowl of stew. Victories are not what they appear at first (or second, or third). Every story is resolved, but no one is moving towards a destination they could have foreseen. There is more than one Beauty, more than one Beast, and with so many of them about other paths become necessary than the familiar.

The story is laced throughout with elements taken from fairy tales–not just Western ones, but often from Eastern European stories. Baba Yaga is a hugely important figure. The forest is a place of danger, and children get lost in it. There are heroic sacrifices and old-fashioned sieges.

But Novik has done something special in “Uprooted.” She has not drawn something new from the old stories–she has taken them and used them to create something different. A lot of the old stories she draws from are about the clash between civilization and nature, the order of the human word and the chaos of the natural one. Novik even uses her two main characters to represent those forces, her Dragon a person who values beauty, elegance, and order, her heroine Anieshka in constant disarray and literally unable fit nd into the carefully categorized world.

These two forces are in apparently straightforward conflict for the early parts of the story, just as short little fairy tales present the world in terms of black and white. But they soon bleed into one another, taking deep root. What exactly is human and what is not are unclear. Good people do terrible and foolish things. And at the heart of the story is a secret which obliterates the idea of pure, implacable evil altogether.

 

 

On Diana Wynne Jones and Good Villains

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Every Diana Wynne Jones novel has a villain. Jones herself was of the opinion that there are truly toxic people in the world, and kids need to learn how to deal with them. So the villains of her stories are utterly, squirmingly real. You know them, or you’ve heard about them from someone, and you recognize the truth of their existence on some deep level.

I think that the central feature of a Jones villain is that they believe the world should be a certain way, and they will not countenance a world any different. If everyone should be well-behaved, they will make everyone well-behaved. If this or that should belong to them, they will take this or that and be baffled and hostile to any suggestion that it isn’t their due.

Somehow, Jones is practically always able to balance a fascinating cognitive dissonance in her villains.¬† None of them consciously acknowledge that the world is, in fact, not exactly as they imagine it. Thus, it makes no sense for them to struggle to form the world in their image. Yet, they constantly have to adapt and adjust to force the world into that image–the same one they will not admit is not what they imagine it to be.

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It’s an incredible piece of characterization every time Jones tries it. Her villains want everything from a place to stay to a town to rule. Sometimes magic helps them, and sometimes magic defeats them–but no matter how much magic goes into the story, the painful reallness of the villain gives the whole thing a grounding in truth.

Balancing the Real Audience and the Imaginary Audience in the Memoirs of Lady Trent

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“The Memoirs of Lady Trent” are not, of course, real memoirs. They’re novels, and they take place in a world similar to our own but with a different geography and alternate history. Jews and Muslims are present, practicing their religions in familiar ways–but Christianity just didn’t happen. Anyone who would have been Christian is Jewish. A lot of the countries and geographies are similar, but there are no familiar names. I didn’t actually realize that the main character is Jewish until embarrassingly late.

However, the fictional writer–Isabella Trent–believes that her world is real. And she is writing her memoirs for an audience in her world. Not only that, she is writing to them about familiar stories, having lived a very public and often scandalous life. She is writing a history, and she touches on news articles, scientific journals, academic societies, and many other books.

This gives Marie Brennan a unique challenge: how to maintain the fiction that Isabella is writing to an audience already familiar with many of the high points of her career, while still keeping the reader in suspense.

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Take Isabella’s second marriage (spoilers for the latest book!). It is a well-known scandal in her world, and when the man she married–Suhail–appeared in the third book, everyone in her imaginary audience would have recognized him. Yet, while a real memoir would probably have identified him early on as ‘the man who would become my husband,’ Brennan obviously cannot do this. The tension between Suhail and Isabella is a key part of the third and fourth books, and to have said they would end up married from the outset would have drained all the victory out of the moment when Isabella finally cracks and proposes to him.

It’s a difficult balance for Brennan to maintain, and I admit that re-reading isn’t quite as much fun as I thought it would be. I know, re-reading the third book, that Isabella is an old woman re-living her meeting and romance with her current husband. But you wouldn’t really know it from the book, because Brennan needed to hold onto the will-they-or-won’t-they. But this aside, it’s a hard task Brennan has set herself, and she does it so well she makes it look easy.

Creating and Breaking a Familiar Story

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I was a bit confused by the latest “Memoir of Lady Trent.” I was expecting a big political upheaval to kick in. I thought there would be a battle, a thrilling chase, a geopolitical firestorm.

I thought this because that was how the last two “Memoirs” went. Go somewhere, study dragons, stumble into a war, play a public and pivotal role in that war, be banned from coming back, go home. A similar plot played in the first novel.

So, as I neared the end of “In the Labyrinth of Drakes,” I was expecting something big to happen. Plots to pay off, a villain to be unmasked. I even thought I knew which character would turn up with an army of bad guys. But nothing happened.

I’m still a little torn on how I feel about this. On the one hand, I felt like the previous two books promised me something, and that promise was broken in this book. I feel a bit of a letdown. On the other hand, Brennan was very clever in designing the plot. The political upheaval is replaced by scholarly upheaval, the shuttered personal becomes public, and all around the book feels fresh.

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Perhaps any experiment with form must accept the risk of breaking promises  made. Some people will probably always feel upset about this. But everything familiar began as unfamiliar, and the greatest joy comes in a promise fulfilled in the most unexpected of ways.

Prague In Literature

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There has to be a graveyard. If there isn’t a graveyard scene, the book isn’t really taking place in Prague.

Prague is an odd sort of city, a melancholy, dark place. The greatest Prague writer was Franz Kafka–that tells you a lot right there. And every once in a while, Prague turns up in an unexpected place. When that happens, the way to tell if the author has actually been to Prague is to ask “is there a graveyard scene?”

Helen Oyeyemi, author of “What is Not Yours is Not Yours,” lived in Prague. I know that because I read an interview, but also because her book is full of eerie puppets in Prague graveyards. Jonathan Stroud, author of “The Golem’s Eye,” spent time in Prague. I don’t have a clue if he admitted that in an interview, but his protagonist went to the Prague Cemetery pretty quickly.

Certain places are alive in ways that are not quite understandable to the human eye. And when the feel of those places is captured in books–something special happens.