Friday, August 24, 2012

First Love: A Book Review of Shannon Hale’s Palace of Stone

I think I should establish something here: If a genie popped out of my just-finished pickle jar right now and granted me three wishes, I would have a hard time not saying, “Please make Shannon Hale move into the house across the street!” And then my next wish would be that Shannon Hale would be my best friend. And then my last wish would be that I could grow up to be just like her. (Let’s not quibble about the fact that I have already, theoretically, grown up.)

Now, re-entering reality… It is unlikely there are any genies in my pickle jars, my peanut butter jars, or even my honey jars, so I’m probably out of luck. And I probably shouldn’t be spending my wishes all on Shannon Hale. … Maybe just one?

Given my adoration for Shannon Hale, you can probably imagine that I enjoyed Palace of Stone, of which I received an ARC last week. (I was jumping up and down all day when I discovered I’d won it. Then I was jumping up and down—with book in hand—all day when I actually got it in the mail.)

Well, I did enjoy it. In beautiful Shannon Hale fashion, the story was both lyrical and fun. Miri in the middle of a revolution just made sense; she’s a person who looks at the world to discover how her presence can improve it. I think we could all use a little more of that. I also loved the Rhetoric rules she learned and put into practice, keeping with the rules of Conversation and Diplomacy she learned in Princess Academy. I kind of want to type up all those rules and put them up as a reminder on my wall. Or on the walls in lots of public places. Or on every “comment” form on every controversial online article ever.

But what I was thinking about most as I read it was first love. We have so many young adult novels that center around first loves—and make them last forever. As if the person you fall in love with at age sixteen is the person you’ll love when you’re ninety.

I hope you won’t consider it a spoiler when I tell you that Miri meets someone else who is fascinating and interested in her—and at the same time Miri and Peder seem headed in different directions. Who will she end up with? I won’t tell you; that would be a spoiler.

So I found myself torn, at times, thinking how much I love Peder and his solid steadiness like the stone he works with. But in real life, when you are so young, just a teenager, there’s still so much growth left to do before you can even get a sense of who you are. How can you choose someone so young? But on the other hand, love that lasts is absolutely a decision you make; it will not always be easy, no matter how fabulous it was in the beginning. So can’t you decide that your first love, that guy you fell for at sixteen, is the one you’ll love forever?

Peder. Timon. Peder. Timon.

My husband was my first love—at nineteen, not sixteen—so I can vouch that it can work out marvelously. Nope, I definitely can’t knock first love. It’s good stuff. And I admit that in books I’m (almost) always rooting for it. But there is something bittersweet as well about the idea of letting it go* and choosing a second or a third or a fifteenth love.**

Did I mention I’m not going to tell you who she ends up with, though? You’ll just have to read it and find out.

*Ah, how to insert a serious caveat without getting up on my soapbox? Let’s just say quickly that I only consider it bittersweet if the “letting go” occurs before the “committing and getting married” portion of the story. “Letting go” afterwards is no longer bittersweet—it’s just tragic (no hatemail please—I know it’s sometimes the best solution, etc. etc., but it’s still tragic). The end.

**Although perhaps if you’re on #15, you should be a little more selective about who you fall in love with?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

So Many Stories

I was recently looking through that long-ago, dusty relic of my undergrad days, my honors thesis. (As a side note, might I mention how strange it was to read “Mason” in the upper-right corner as the author? It felt like I was reading pages written by someone else.) This idea, of the many I referenced, stuck out at me:

“There is no one true version [of a tale] of which all others are but copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth.”  —Claude Lévi-Strauss

Here is another thing I love about fairy tales. Every version tells something different.

A few favorites of mine:

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (emphatically not like the movie—approximately four gajillion times better)

Beauty, by Robin McKinley

Storyteller’s Daughter and Beauty Sleep, by Cameron Dokey

The Rumpelstilskin Problem, by Vivian Vande Velde

Rapunzel’s Revenge and Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale

Tiffany Aching series, by Terry Pratchett (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight)*

What are your favorites?

*Okay, I cheated here. The Tiffany Aching books aren’t fairy tales. But I think they merited a mention anyway. So there.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fairy Tales

A while ago I read (and also watched) Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Marvelous book, but not at all what I wanted to write about here. What I want to mention is the book’s epigraph:

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” —G.K. Chesterton

Yes! I wanted to shout. That’s exactly it! That’s the power of stories. When I look back at the tales that have changed me, made me think, made me want to take action—this is what they’re about. They aren’t about the darkness; they’re about the light that breaks through that darkness, the light that defeats it.

I find I want to pull this quote out and show it to everyone who has ever looked askance at me when I told them I love to read fairy tales. Read it every time I had to explain that my undergraduate thesis paper was devoted entirely to “Beauty and the Beast.”* Use it to justify my love of retelling fairy tales—my hope to publish a retelling. I want to say, “Look! Don’t you see the value in that? Scoff all you want, but it’s true.”

Despite the adoration I have just expressed for fairy tales, my feelings for them are actually far more complex, and often ambivalent.

I have, over the years (and sometimes over the days, hours, or minutes), alternately loved, despised, overanalyzed, or simply devoured most of the familiar fairy tales—and many of the lesser knowns. I cannot pick up my beaten-up copy of “Sleeping Beauty,” for example, without remembering my childhood concern over the economic impact of destroying all the kingdom’s spinning wheels. I cannot watch Disney’s Beauty and the Beast without a pang of annoyance for Belle’s snobbish attitude toward a “provincial life.” I can’t hear “Someday My Prince Will Come” without envisioning my sister belting it out in an exaggerated warble, pretending she’s waiting for her photographs.** And as I write this, I can’t help but be appalled that most of my strongest memories of fairy tales all come from the sanitized, frequently shallow, often annoying, always ridiculously anorexic Disney versions. Ah, Disney, how I feel about all you have done—both good and bad—with the canon. (Stay tuned another day to hear how I feel about Cinderella.)

I love and hate them, I laugh and cry as I read them, I plot and plan how to retell them. I am compelled to look at them again and again, and to pick out the parts that I think are more than true.

And now, I am off to slay a dragon.

*Please note: The thesis was not about the Disney movie version.
**Get it? Prince? Prints? Har har har.

The Bachelorette

Decisions, decisions...