we now interrupt this blog... Chabon, Jones, Levine

Where has Kate been, you may be wondering? Surely she has been reading, as is her tireless wont? Well, dear blog readers, I have been busily writing or rewriting the last 4 chapters of my now complete 8 chapter dissertation, and I'll be defending it on April 27 9-11am CST, GSLIS building room 109 if you're local. So, in great part, what I have been reading since February is about 275 pages of my own writing, over and over and over again.

While it has been great to make this progress, and it will be thrilling to be done, the agonies and angst of re-reading and editing one's own writing just do not make for pretty public display. And so I have spared you all. :)

In the last few weeks, though, I realized that I had to read something simply to keep myself from self-destructing with anxiety. I first learned this about myself in high school, senior year, when AP and IB exams were going on (Hi Craig and Melanie!). During those 2 weeks of nonstop testing hell, I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, starting with re-reading The Hobbitt. The same strategy has applied during this time: read books with fascinating narratives for breaks and before bed, so that my subconscious imaginitive mind has plenty of food for thought beyond the anxiety of the situation. So below are the books, with brief commentary, that have kept me sane during this time.

Michael Chabon, Mysteries of Pittsburgh
A brilliantly written Holden-Caufield-esque narrative of a young man's summer just post-college. He falls in love, twice, and then at the same time with a woman and a man. Most of all, he comes to face first the imagined and then the real sins of his father, who is a bigshot in the mafia.

Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
One Chabon led to another... This story of two cousins who achieve wild success as comic book artists with their character The Escapist is set in the time leading up to, during, and then long after World War II. Sam is the American cousin, while Jacob escaped from Prague. There are surrealistic scenes when we are drawn into the garish world of a comic book hero-and-villain confrontation, which Chabon achieves with prose alone. No wonder he won the Pulitzer for this one.

Diana Wynne Jones The Pinhoe Egg
Jones is in classic form, once again, with a fantasy book that spans the separate worlds of several families in a rural region of England. Typically, Jones deals in entire separate universes, and the Chrestomancer himself, Christopher Chant, does indeed spend some of his time away from the castle to take care of business in other universes. However, the bulk of the action happens in the supposedly real world, where two families who have hidden their witchcraft for eons despite living in the shadow of Chrestomanci Castle start a war of plagues, curses, and spite. As in all Jones' extremely fetching narratives, the children save the day. Marianne of the Pinhoe family gives Cat, another 9-lived enchanter like Chant who lives at the castle, an egg from the abandoned attic of her family's home. Out hatches a baby griffin, who becomes the catalyst, along with Cat, Marianne, Chant and others, for the freeing of magical creatures who had been imprisoned by the head of the Farleigh family long ago. Perhaps the only flaw here is that one family is punished more than the other--the Farleighs lose their magic entirely, while the Pinhoes are merely read the riot act about using magic fairly--and so the ending doesn't seem quite fair. However, this likely sets us up for sequels, and I for one can't wait.

Gail Carson Levine, Fairest
I was a big fan of Levine from her early book Dave At Night, which I still highly recommend. Since her success with Ella Enchanted (book and movie), Levine has leveraged most of her considerable writing strength towards the highly marketable princess-story genre. This book is one of the best of her recent creations. Aza is the heroine who has a gorgeous singing voice in a kingdom where singing is the most highly prized skill of all. Unfortunately, she is quite ugly and, of course, very self-conscious. She lives with her adopted family in the inn where she was abandoned as a baby. When a wealthy woman takes a liking to her and takes her to the castle to see the wedding of the King, it feels perhaps inevitable that the Prince will fall in love with Aza, but not before several narrative detours take us to the land of the gnomes among other places.

I'm a sucker for singing as a magical trope, and I loved the descriptions of Aza's voice and her unusual ability to throw her voice so that voices were heard coming from objects or other people. This is a tasty but more or less candy-level read--fun and entertaining, but not a confection that leaves a lasting impression.

Nevertheless, I was struck by a folkloric pattern in a way I hadn't considered in awhile. Aza eventually discovers that she is related to the gnomes, and even takes refuge inside their mountain. I thought again about how finding one's ancestry is so often a metaphor for finding one's identity in folklore or fantasy tales. And, of course, in real life it isn't that at all... but wouldn't it be lovely if it were that simple, and if knowing one's self were as easy as finding records of one's family. This is not to belittle genaeology, through which of course many people do learn something about their identities, and perhaps even something profound. I thought, however, about the many happily adopted children who choose *not* to pursue information about their birth parents. The idea that birth parents convey identity oversimplifies what is a complex process of understanding that emerges over time. It's a successful kind of wish fulfillment in stories like Levine's that the heroine learns her ancestry and thereby gains her own long sought-after confidence.

And, actually, the adoration of the prince helps, too... ah, for the simplicity of a good old-fashioned good-vs-evil story! Levine's tale is a great romp with a strong heroine who only grows stronger, no matter the various forces that contribute.