You may be wondering where I’ve been. I wish I had a sensible answer for you. Instead, I have only nonsense to offer. But it’s factual nonsense. I can’t help what’s true.
Instead of blogging, I’ve spent the last month Squatchin’ – and it’s all Cat Valente’s fault.
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Genre: Fiction / Fantasy / YA
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Pub Date: October 1, 2013
Hardcover: 256 pages.
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: I can always count on Valente to throw the word around at least once or twice. 🙂
“September misses Fairyland and her friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. She longs to leave the routines of home, and embark on a new adventure. Little does she know that this time, she will be spirited away to the moon, reunited with her friends, and find herself faced with saving Fairyland from a moon-Yeti with great and mysterious powers.” – Goodreads.com
After ingesting each installment of the Fairyland series, I am always left with the same feeling: the desperate need to read more. Thankfully, the third book is not the end! This is no simple trilogy, folks. It’s a goddamn pentalogy. Unthankfully, the fourth book is not due out for at least another year (I’d speculate October 2014). While it’s perfectly reasonable to take a year to create and publish a novel (miraculous, even), it’s still an awfully long time for a voracious reader to wait. Thankfully (again), in her third book, Valente provides fans with a literally off-handed solution. (Granted, she cautions us against using said solution… but desperate times call for desperate measures).
She writes of a species whose paws have the ability to control time: yetis. Somehow, moon-fairies trapped one of the beasts and chopped off his paw. For awhile, until its sudden disappearance, they used it like a gruesome Blarney Stone; they’d kiss it and lick it in order to speed up time, skipping past all of the nasty little waiting bits. This was no problem for the fairies as they’re immortal. For normal people caught in the time warp, however, it was disastrous. There’s a message here that Valente is trying to bestow on her readers and the narrator upon September: waiting and longing is important. It can be almost as delicious – maybe even more so – than actually getting what you’ve been waiting for. Racing through life has consequences. Much better to take your time and enjoy the journey. A wise person would take that wisdom to heart. A desperate Pooka, though? A desperate Pooka reads those words, reads some more beautiful words, and then reads some very final words (those on the last page of the novel), and decides it’s time to go huntin’!
That’s why I’ve spent the last month in the woods, banging sticks against trees, just hoping to catch a glimpse of Bigfoot. I don’t want to cut off his paw and lick it, of course. Not only is that shit gross, but as a rabbit-shaped, mythological creature, I would never try to deprive another living being of a limb due to its fabled magical properties. I just know that if I could talk to a yeti for a few heartbeats, I could convince him of how much he and I have in common. I could offer him some physical comfort. I could ask him to put his paw in mine and perform a simple exchange. With just one touch from me, he could get some luck, and from him, I could acquire some control over time: just enough to speed through this next year, arriving at the exact time of the next Fairyland publication date.
Sadly, Bigfeet have some confidence problems: they’ve either got too much of it or too little. Either he was too shy to show his face, or he thinks time is more valuable than luck. ‘Cause I spent weeks in the wilderness and all I have to show for it is this lousy hat.
I guess I’ll just have to wait like everybody else. Unless of course, Bigfeet have secret underground cabins built complete with internet access and they like to spend their spare time reading book review blogs. In that case, e-mail me, Bigfoot! We can arrange a meet-up! But until then, I suppose I’ll enjoy the comforts of home and get on with my review, writing from my big, comfy chair. Even the best subterranean hideout (warren or otherwise) ain’t got nothin’ on ultra-plush cushions and a potful of coffee.
What Made the Book Totally Worth Eating:
1. The beautiful, beautiful writing.
It’s difficult to organize my thoughts in the way that I normally do, since so much of what I love about Cat Valente’s writing is sentence-by-sentence. If I just let myself go, the numbered categories under this heading would reach a million and contain a million quotations: the sentence about the moon and her faces, the paragraph about the black cosmic dog, the rumination on brightness and shadows, the reference to thunder-snow, the sentence about how dragons are better than boys, the shout-out to werewhales, the part about choking on sugar-snow. I’ll limit myself to one quotation – the first from the list, but please know that to do so requires a great effort. It’s about the moon: “She changes her face over the course of a month, well, who doesn’t? Who is the same creature on the first of the month as on the thirty-first? Anything might happen, in such a space” (224). As a shapeshifter, I found these words to be particularly relevant, but they’re true for anyone, on any day. This is a book for pookas and for people.
Valente’s protagonist never fails to inspire love. In the first book, I became enamored with her outfit (her pumpkin-orange dress and her green velvet smoking jacket), her cross-referencing competence, her appreciation of the sea, her healthy appetite (girl knows how to eat!), and her disinterestedness in becoming a princess. In the second, she remained true to herself while embracing change, as well as the need for wildness and darkness. And now, in the third book, as she grows up, I’m still in love. She still knows how to wield a wrench and is still unwieldy. Despite feeling the need to be more stern and adult, she ultimately retains her honesty and her fire. While Ell (her friend, the Wyverary) struggles to tame his fire, September struggles to keep hers from going out. It’s hard to grow up and remain feisty, but she does it. She worries the whole way through about her “fate,” but when she’s confronted with it, you realize that you never needed to be worried at all – because she responds to it in a very September-y way. Also, she reads while walking. And that’s a skill I’ve been working at since I was a child (initially, I had the bumps and bruises to prove it), and one I thrill to see others practicing. Valente writes, “September could do nearly anything while reading: walk, brush a horse, pull ragweed out of the herb-bed, scrub the teacups and gravy boats which by now had almost no paint on them at all” (15). I can’t boast the ability to brush a horse while reading, but Pookas do have the ability to shift into equines, so I suppose in the future I could shift, read, and then brush myself. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Saturday, September’s blue-skinned, tattooed, ocean-born love interest, gets more of the spotlight in The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. In September’s absence, he’s really come into his own. When she first found him, he was caged and nearly broken, but by the third book he’s discovered how to revel in his freedom and has found his strength. He’s become proud (in a good way), and a talented showman. He performs in the Stationary Circus (the next on my list of things I loved), and gives one of the most eloquent speeches in the novel. When I finished the second book in the series, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, my one complaint was that there wasn’t one, single stand-out chapter that I could point to when people asked me why I loved the book so much, and say, simply, “This.” In the first book, I could point to Chapter XII and the personification of Death, and in this, the third, I can point directly to Chapter XI, “Aeroposte.” Saturday is an acrobat. He flies on the trapeze, and he loves it. He explains that his favorite part is the practice, “to shape it bit by bit, every day, to be so good at moving and seeming that I could change just a tiny turn of my toe and have it become something new, from a comedic tumble to a tragic fall, from a leap of faith to a twist ending, from a nosedive to lifted spirits… I learned to make myself lighter… Seawater can be as light as spray and as heavy as whales… And, well, the way you can look at a surging ocean and feel everything from deep sorrow to bubbling delight to a giggling urge to jump right in and splash about — when people look at me, they feel those things” (138-9). I wish I didn’t have to cut any of the words. I wish I could transcribe the whole 15 pages; it’s glorious!
4. The Stationary Circus.
You may think that the Circus that Saturday works for is named thus simply because it does not move; you’d be wrong. The Stationary Circus is so-titled because all of Saturday’s fellow performers are made of paper. His two closest co-workers are Valentine, “love letters, woven together to make a girl” (133), and Pentameter, a boy “whose long, tall body was covered in blocks of text, little birthmarks of fourteen lines each” (133). They fold and unfold into different origami shapes in order to perform their acts. It’s fantastic.
5. Advice for writing my own novel.
I have grand plans to write a book. I’ve got the basic plot line in my head, a working title, character names, and about 2,500 words, but every time I sit down to write I just end up rewriting what I’ve already got. I know that’s a no-no. I really should be participating in NaNoWrimo this month, but I was too intimidated. I’ve known about NaNoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month) in an abstract way for a few years now, but this was the first year that I really took the time to look into it and learn more about what it actually is. So, I’m taking this year to psych myself up, research, and learn, and then I’ve promised myself that next year, I’ll participate. I’ll actually write. The idea is that you join a supportive, like-minded community, and, after a month’s time, you’ll have written 50,000 words. It sounds insane – but that’s never been a deterrent for me before. (I just went ‘Squatchin, fer Chrissakes!). In any event, when I do sit down to write next year, Valente’s provided me with some excellent advice. Firstly, she wrote a phenomenal earthquake scene (82) – set on a ship no less! – which showed me how a real ground-shaking experience should be written! That will help me with one of the scenes in my book, for sure. And secondly, she told me all about the epilogue. She instructs, “The space before the epilogue is a sacred place, soft and full of possibilities” (241). That, I need to remember.
6. The Description of Libraries.
Working in a library, you quickly learn that people have all sorts of mixed-up notions about what libraries and librarians are and should be like. They think we get to sit and read all day (which sounds delightful, but is woefully untrue). They think, too, that librarians are tight-bunned, tight-lipped, buttoned-up, stern-faced shushers, who have mouthfuls of “no.” Cat Valente doesn’t think so. She also does not think, as most people do, that libraries must be empty, quiet, solemn, hallowed places. Granted, I work in a Children’s Library, where play and giggles and screams and tantrums and shouts of joy and the lushness of words and books read aloud fill the air (along with all the noises animals make in picture books, like hooting, and hollering; neighing, braying, trumpeting, and howling). But Cat’s got it all right. Of libraries, she writes:
“A silent library! Can you imagine anything more miserable?… You poor girl, what sort of aged, unfriendly Libraries have you met in your short life? A silent Library is a sad Library. A library without patrons on whom to pile books and tales and knowing and magazines full of up-to-the-minute politickal fashions and atlases and plays in pentameter! A Library should be full of exclamations! Shouts of delight and horror as the wonders of the world are discovered or the lies of the heavens uncovered or the wild adventures of devil-knows-who sent romping out of the pages. A Library should be full of now-just-a-minutes and that-can’t-be-rights and scentifick folk running skelter to prove somebody wrong. It should positively vibrate with laughing at comedies and sobbing at tragedies, it should echo with gasps as decent ladies glimpse indecent things and indecent ladies stumble upon secret and scandalous decencies! A Library should not shush; it should roar!” (109-10).
And to that, as is typical of a Librarian, I don’t say “no.” I say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
7. Valente’s Thoughts On Love and Marriage.
She doesn’t just give them to us, straight-faced and blunt. Instead, she writes about the marriage ceremony of two imaginary beasts (Lamias), who are then transformed into two even more imaginary, fantastical animated inanimate objects (underwater, cannon-blasting hot-air balloons) in love. But regardless of the method, the message is the same. Here’s what she has to say about marriage: “We wore our hearts on our sleeves!… That’s what you wear to your wedding if you’re a Lamia… To show that you mean it, to show you know that love means wearing your insides on your outsides. And under the first waxing moon after the ceremony, you swap… You swallow your love’s heart, and they swallow yours. Then forever after, your heart is living inside your mate, and theirs inside you. You’re not in love if you keep your own heart bricked up behind your bones. You’re only playing” (178). And then, as the two creatures go through various transformations, she writes, “Marriage is a wrestling match where you hold on tight while your mate changes into a hundred different things. The trick is that you’re changing into a hundred other things, but you can’t let go. You can only try to match up and never turn into a wolf while he’s a rabbit, or a mouse while he’s still busy being an owl, a brawny black bull while he’s a little blue crab scuttling for shelter. It’s harder than it sounds” (179). Would it be weird if I made that a part of my wedding vows? Probably…
8. Advice On How to Grow Up Without Sacrificing the Best Parts of Your Childhood.
Adults throw around the words “immature”, “juvenile”, and childish” as if they’re insults. And, depending on the situation, they can be. But they can also be compliments – and people forget that. There are two final things that Valente writes that I want to remember – and so I’ll write them out here, so that I can come back and read them again and again. I’ll also write them out so that you can read them – maybe for the first time, if you’ve yet to read the book, and maybe for a second time, if you’ve read it already and are looking to compare your reaction to someone else’s. Either way, there’s no harm in reading about how to be a good adult. Valente writes these words as September struggles to be “proud, noble, and adultish.” She says, “No one had ever told her that exulting and dancing and singing nonsense were childish things, but she felt sure that they were, somehow” (28). September thinks restraint is the mark of a proper adult. But it’s better to be an improper adult! That, too, after years of having it drilled out of you, requires work, at first. To let loose is just as hard for adults as restraint is for children. But both are so important! Valente writes, “Hearts, once you have them locked up in your chest, are a fantastic heap of tender and terrible wonders. But they must be trained… A heart can learn ever so many tricks, and what sort of beast it becomes depends greatly upon whether it has been taught to sit up or to lie down, to speak or to beg, to roll over or to sound alarms, to guard or to attack, to find or to stay. But the trick most folk are so awfully fond of learning, the absolute second they’ve got hold of a heart, is to pretend they don’t have one at all. It is the very first danger of the hearted” (28). And finally, “”Living is a paragraph constantly rewritten. It is Grown-Up Magic. Children are heartless; their parents hold them still, squirming and shouting, until a heart can get going in their little lawless wilderness. Teenagers crash their hearts into every hard and thrilling thing to see what will give and what will hold. And Grown-Ups, when they are very good, when they are very lucky, and very brave, and their wishes are sharp as scissors, when they are in the fullness of their strength, use their hearts to start their story over again” (184-5). In the quest for adulthood, Valente lets her readers know that it’s okay to lose your innocence, but don’t lose your wonder, and don’t hide your joy.
What I Spit Back Out:
1. Parts of Chapter XIII, “Only the Dead Don’t Argue,” and Candlestick, the Buraq.
Disclaimer: I read this chapter with a hangover. I don’t recommend it.
It’s possible that the writing was murky, unclear, and tangential… but given Miss Valente’s track record, I’m willing to concede that it may have just been my head.
2. Unclear Audience.
I don’t know if this is even a complaint. It’s more of a question – something I wish I had in mind when Catherynne Valente did her AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. As passionately as I feel about the Fairyland books, I also rarely recommend them. Sure, I’ve told all of my friends to read them (which are mostly twenty-something to forty-something-year-old humans), but I have so many more opportunities in my life to recommend books and these titles infrequently come to mind. It’s because they’ve got a child protagonist, but they’ve also got a whopping vocabulary, an omniscient narrator, and discussions found in top-level Literature courses on Critical Theory (about palimpsests, the Observor/Observed/and the Gaze, and many more). I’ve seen them categorized as Young Adult Literature, but the first novel begins with a twelve-year-old September. For the most part, teens are exceedingly worried about being infantilized. They don’t want to read “baby stuff,” which, regardless of assurances from well-meaning Librarians, they think reading about a twelve-year-old surely is. I’ve also seen them categorized as Children’s Literature, but there are so many topics and phrases that would soar right over a child’s head! Maybe they would make for good family read-alouds. I wonder if the philosophical nature would hold a child’s interest. I suppose I could see recommending it to very intellectual, thoughtful children. Typically, these families are more interested in “Classics” (a very ambiguous term) and they shy away from fantasy, but I think I’ll try slipping this one in next time they ask. And adults can be as worried about appearances as teens. They look down their noses as “Young Adult” or “Children’s Literature,” and at fantasy and child protagonists. Illustrations automatically put a text’s reputation and literary standing into jeopardy, don’t you know. Surely there are no illustrations in Vladimir Nabokov’s works! (Although I love illustrations, for this I am also grateful). I wonder what Valente thinks about her work – how she categorizes it, if she categorizes it, and if she thinks it’s for children. Maybe I’ll ask and hope she answers!
So, I obviously loved this book. I’m beyond pleased that there will be two more. I went into it thinking that Fairyland was going to be a trilogy and that this was the last book. I’ve never been more happy to be wrong. The Girl Who Soared… ends on a very cliff-hanger-y, open-ended note, but that doesn’t make me angry! It only makes me hungry for more. While there’s still Autumn in the air, I recommend that you sit down with a glass of hot cider and warm blanket and open up the text. (If you’ve yet to read the first one, start there. This isn’t a story where you can just jump in anywhere. Begin at the beginning). Just don’t blame me if you’re struck with a sudden urge to go ‘Squatchin’ upon its completion. In fact, instead of blaming me, e-mail me. Maybe two rabid Cat Valente fans will have more luck ‘Squatchin’ than one. Here’s hoping there’s a Class A sighting in your future! If you pick up Valente’s book, there’s sure to be a Class A read.
Pooka Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Nibbles.