30 April 2013

NOS4A2 (Joe Hill)

So fair warning, y'all: while reading Joe Hill's 700-page new novel, NOS4A2, which you will do rapidly and with delight, you will end up with Christmas music running through your head. Constantly. And it will FREAK YOU RIGHT THE EFF OUT. William Morrow was wise to publish this in spring rather than closer to the holiday, or they'd be blamed for legions of readers having the Worst Christmas Ever--this way, the memory of Charlie Manx and his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith (with its titular license plate) will have blessedly faded.

Charlie's car is a part of him, and he's part of it. Together, they drive down roads no other car can, all the way to Christmasland, "where every morning is Christmas morning and unhappiness is against the law." He's brought children to Christmasland for seven decades--they acquire a great many alarming extra teeth along the way--aided by a series of Renfields like Bing Partridge, who may be a few ants short of a picnic but makes up for it with his father's gas mask and a canister of gingerbread-scented sevoflurane. (Freaked out yet?)

Vic McQueen has her own uncanny vehicle: riding her Raleigh Tuff Burner at top speed, she can travel right over the Shorter Way bridge (despite its having collapsed years ago) to wherever she needs to be to find what she's looking for. One day, she goes looking for trouble, and rides all the way to Charlie, the Wraith, and the house in Colorado where Christmasland overlaps with the outside world.

And we're only 150 pages in.

I'm gonna once again break into my lockbox o' book-review cliches to pull out "tour de force," because ZOUNDS this book is good. (Interesting: a search of this blog finds that I've used the phrase previously to describe Neal Stephenson's Anathem and Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night. I think Mr. Hill would be OK with that company.) Hill's writing is deceptively straightforward, sly and propulsive and wise; he writes about so many things, trauma and picture books and parenthood and even Gerard Manley Hopkins and his fanboy crush on author David Mitchell, and the book is equally successful appealing to the heart and intellect as it is the hairs on the back of your neck. (While it didn't scare me quite as much as his debut, Heart-Shaped Box, that's the second scariest book I ever read, after Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, so that ain't a criticism.) Read it now, before the radio switches over to non-stop "Little Drummer Boy," six months from now.

23 April 2013

Chess Story (Stefan Zweig)

Stefan Zweig's Chess Story is small but intense, made more so by its being the last thing the Austrian Jewish author wrote before his 1942 suicide in exile. The novella nests first-person narrators: in the framing story, a passenger on a steamer heading from New York to Buenos Aires learns he's (a presumptive he, as I don't think Zweig ever specifies) traveling with the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, a savant who can barely read but whose rise to the height of the chess world has been meteoric. A group of enthusiasts persuade Mirko to play them simultaneously; they fail spectacularly until they begin taking the advice of a timid stranger. This man reluctantly tells the story of how he gained his chess skills: a Viennese lawyer with ties to the clergy and the imperial court, he was imprisoned by the Nazis after the Anschluss, constantly interrogated in an effort to find the monarchic assets his firm had hidden. The preferred form of torture was total isolation--he's kept for months in a bare room, his only conversations interrogations, until he manages to steal a book from a guard's overcoat. He's disappointed to learn it's only a book of chess problems; but driven by necessity, he works through them over and over, using the checkered counterpane as a board, until he can play chess games entirely in his head, against himself . . . until the psychological task of separating his internal Black player from White overwhelms him, and he goes insane. Pushed into playing against Czentovic, he once again beings to lose his grip on reality.

I found myself comparing Chess Story with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," another masterpiece of oppression and isolation. They share a sense of claustrophobia and creeping horror that's astonishing in such a short fictional space. And I love how Zweig uses the mental projection required for expertise in chess as both a means of escape and a kind of psychic trap. Zweig was apparently one of the most popular authors in the world in the 1920s and 30s--NYRB Classics has translated several other titles recently, and I'll be reading more for certain.

11 April 2013

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making & ...Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Catherynne M. Valente)

Zounds and wow and holy cow. It is quite possible that Catherynne M. Valente's first two Fairyland books--The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There--are the best middle-grade (i.e. written for eight-to-twelvers) fantasy books I have ever read. Certainly the best published this century: it ranks easily with E. Nesbit and Edward Eager, with the chronicles of Prydain and Narnia, with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth. Its most modern analogues are Dealing with Dragons and The Tale of Despereaux. And it's simultaneously influenced by all of these and utterly original.

The two books (a third, The Girl Who Soared Above Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Half, is out in October, huzzah!) tell the adventures of September, a little girl from WWII-era Nebraska who's one day Ravished to Fairyland by the Green Wind and his feline steed, the Leopard of Little Breezes. Here is a teeny-weeny handful of the awesome things in these books:
  • A wyvern whose father was a library, named A-through-L (he never read the other volumes of the encyclopedia)
  • A blue-skinned Marid boy named Saturday, who grants wishes only if you wrestle him into submission
  • A sweet-natured soap golem named Lye, whose baths scrub up one's courage and wishes and luck
  • A semi-sentient smoking jacket
  • Herds of wild velocipedes sweeping across the plains
  • Turquoise kangaroos called J√§rlhopps who mine memories
  • A root cellar for world mythology at the bottom of Fairyland, stocked with edibles like Idun's Apple Butter, Kali's Red-Hot Pickled Peppers and Coyote's Extra-Fine Cornmeal Floor
  • A narrative barometer with readings like Katabasis, Anabasis, Locked Room Mystery, Treasure Hunt, and Edda
  • A sly and compassionate narrator
  • And most of all: a heroine who is plucky and brave without being violent
I would quote the whole of both books for you if I could--the writing is consciously Victorian, with lots of Capitalized Nouns, and it's funny and wise and layered, and scary in the right places and in the right ways, and...oof. Just so good. Good to read aloud, good to read as a kid, good to read as an adult. I'll share one passage that my friend Michele (at whose I HAVE TOO MANY BOOKS HELP organizing/giveaway party I obtained my copy of Circumnavigated) underlined, saving me the trouble: "Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble."

I am jealous of and awestruck by and grateful to Ms. Valente for writing these books, and I want everyone to read them. EVERYONE. For an amuse-bouche of the style and the world, there's a prequel short story you can read online, "The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland--For a Little While." I dare you to read it and not want more.

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