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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

King of Shadows (Susan Cooper)

A short and lovely children's story. Nat travels to London to perform in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the replica of the Globe theater. Barely into rehearsals, he wakes up on a straw mattress in the London of four hundred years ago and finds himself cast as Puck in a revival of the play for Queen Elizabeth.

Of course it's frightening to be translated so far into the past, but in many ways, this is a gift beyond compare for an aspiring actor. To be able to meet William Shakespeare? To perform under the direction of William Shakespeare??

What most comes through in this story is the love for the theater - not from the audience, but the love from the actor's view - the quarrels backstage, the desperate ad libbing to keep the performance going, the delivery of lines directly to a stunned observer in the audience. I was never a theater person, but King of Shadows brings to life that wonder and excitement which actors - and all those in an acting company - surely feel as they prepare and perform their plays.

Ms. Susan Cooper, of course, is also the author of the much more well-known Dark Is Rising series (see my recommendation here).

Monday, April 21, 2008

The desolate, lonely sorrow of one's dreams

The Court of the Stone Children (Eleanor Cameron) is a quietly emotional story for "young adults" (such an unfortunate -- perhaps necessary? -- term). Nina is a troubled young child, torn between the love of her parents and resentment towards her father's illness that required moving to the city. When she learns of the French Museum, it seems that she finally has found a place for herself, the quiet and wonderful rooms where she relaxes under her "Museum feeling". She finally makes some friends - the awkward young boy Gil, the quiet caretaker Auguste, Mrs. Staynes, the chief curator Mam'zelle -- and the elegant Dominique de Lombre.

"I knew you'd come," whispers Dominique to Nina. "Be sure to come back. Though of course you will." And of course Nina does. The two become close friends, sharing as best they can their loneliness - "the desolate, lonely sorrow of one's dreams," Domi cries. And in Domi's dreams, Nina is the one who will help Domi's father. As their friendship grows, Nina realizes that Domi's fate, and that of Domi's father, lie in the two hundred year-old journals of another young woman, the passionate and ill-fated Odile Chyrsostome.

I've spoken well of Eleanor Cameron before, as she wrote the Tycho Bass series which I love (though these are intended for a much younger audience than The Court of the Stone Children). This story is far more deep.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

McSweeney's Impressions

The books smell.  I open the cover and I think of store-fresh running shoes.  It's a scent of new rubber.

The Icelandic one, McSweeney's 15, has a collection of Icelandic magazine snippets. They look like trashy magazines to me. While I examine the snippet I cannot read, my wife opens number 15. She notices that the copyright page has a story in it.
"Weird," she says. I read it. It starts, "We are writing this copyright page from Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Novermber 2, because we were hoping to contribute some manpower to this state, which was seen as winnable by the good guys in this terrifying and also extremely terrifying and did we mention
completely fucking terrifying election." It proceeds to tell an odd little story about election night, 2004, that uses up the entire page.

"Well, at least they make good use of their space," I said. The story gives me a mixed first impression.

Then I read the first real story, "A Precursor of the Cinema," by Steven Millhauser. "Boring," I think, but I give it a shot anyway. It has a funny little Scandinavian engraving at the heading of the chapter. I think, "Whaa!
Man overboard!" The story reads like a historical document, but one that slowly brings to light a mystery. It is like an inventor's biography, but with a patina of Ripley's Believe It or Not or a ghost story. It surprises me, and I like it. The next story is titled "Lie Down and Die" (by Seth Fried), and it's only two pages, so I read that, too. It is more introspective and thoughtful, and contains an interesting perspective on death. I would think of it a week later, while reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

I jump to the one with the maze, number 18. The copyright story is fun, with the editor making crazy promises about issue 19. The table of contents is a maze. I navigate to a short story, "In a Bear's Eye" (by Yannick Murphy), because it is short, and the baby is going to wake up
soon. I want to write something up for my blog. On the surface, it is about a woman (known only as "the woman") trying to protect her son from a bear. The story twists and turns, jumps perspectives, and reflects, maze-like. Every sentence is short. It reads choppy, like Hemingway, and I note that I'm sometimes concerned about choppiness in my own writing. But the choppiness here doesn't bug me. I find myself noticing things not written. Short flashbacks call up the woman's dead husband and how he "walked into the ocean one day and he did not stop walking."  She and her son tell comforting lies about how he's still walking down there, touching pufferfish for fun, etc. All I can think of during this paragraph is his corpse floating in the water, even though there is no mention of it.  The next paragraph describes her husband's
tourbook of China scrawled with his note to, "Visit the Wall." She talks about how he wanted to see it, but I immediately read it as a command to her and her son. However, I suspect that the story will not follow this up. I start to see the story not for what it is, but for what it could be, for the unfulfilled possibilities passed up by the woman and her son. Then I flip to the front cover and consider destiny as a maze. It is an interesting idea. They don't go to China.

Moving on, I decide to leave the book with George Bush on the cover alone for now, and open the more interesting folding
volume instead. Inside one flap is a comb. A set of thirteen cards, all hearts, all covered with prose, rests in the other. They form a story titled, "Heart Suit" (by Robert Coover). The instructions tell me I can shuffle them and start reading with the title card, making sure to finish with the Joker. I do this, and preserve the order so you can see. The basis of the story is that the Queen of Hearts has baked some tarts for the king, but someone has stolen them! The king is furious that someone would have the gall to steal his tarts, and the offender will pay with his life.

Reading along, I am not that impressed with how shuffling the cards affects the story. The framework of the story is constructed so that all of the characters are interchangeable, which allows the story to 
always makes sense, but makes every reading basically the same. Continuing, I find myself chuckling at some of the bawdy parts and rolling my eyes at others. Subtexts of randomness and interchangeability pop out. 

I am surprised. I find myself thinking, "So what if the Knave of Hearts was caught bedding the queen. I don't even care who stole the tarts. This is the interesting part." And then I reach the last card.
All-in-all, I am pleased with McSweeney's, and I would recommend it to people who like stories that buck convention, or want to try something different. It's not billed as Sci-fi or Fantasy, but the stories I read came close, and I don't doubt there are some that fall squarely into the SFF categories.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Just add four drops of atomic tritetramethylbenzacarbonethylene...

Recommended: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (Eleanor Cameron)

I am-let's be honest-still a fairly young person. True, I remember growing up from a little troll-ling into an honest and (one hopes) respected bridgekeeper, but the slower changes of growing older I know little about. Aging, to me, is a slight expansion of the waistline and a feeling of goosebumps as my scalp sheds its natural insulation.

For me, one of the most notable aspects of aging is being able to look back upon books I read as a child with a richer and deeper perspective. Unfortunately, that look backwards is often bittersweet. I recall the charm and joy of much-loved works, but I am put off by the simplicity of the story.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, is one of these stories which is difficult to read again and again as an adult. It's a wonderful story, but it's just too simple to enjoy completely as an adult. A few bits and pieces are visible to me now that were obscure as a child: the overdone religious symbolism for one, and (more amusingly) the sexual innuendo (quite eyebrow-raising, really).

But I do enjoy going back to the stories I enjoyed as a child - that clich├ęd trip down memory lane. One story I seem to track down every ten years or so is The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. As I've mentioned before, I enjoy the stereotypical 1950's-style science-fiction, space-meets-suburbia, with be-apron-ed moms and pipe-smoking dads and clean-cut boys causing all sorts of ruckus in the Junior Rocketeers. (The gender stereotypes are a bit much to swallow, but I enjoy the old sci-fi.)

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is certainly not a Heinlein story, but it's in a similar style. David and Chuck (Chuck!) are fast suburban friends who answer the following advertisement:

Wanted. A small space ship about eight feet long, built by a boy, or by two boys, between the ages of eight and eleven. The ship should be made of materials at hand. An adventure and a chance to do a good deed await the boys who built the best space ship. Please bring your ship as soon as possible to Mr. Tyco M. Bass, 5 Thallo Street, Pacific Grove, California.

So naturally, the intrepid children hammer together a space ship and drag it to the observatory of the mysterious Mr. Tycho Bass. I'm afraid it sounds creepy when I phrase it like that, but really this is a harmless story of a space adventure and, yes, a very good deed. It's the originality of the character of Tycho that I remember so well, and I hope you'll enjoy the character as well.

I'm sure you can find the story in your local library. The series continues: Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, Mr. Bass's Planetoid, A Mystery for Mr. Bass, and Time and Mr. Bass.