Book Review: The White Dragon and a Teen Boy Who Gets Away with Too Much

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Now, it’s been a while since my last Anne McCaffrey novel, having read Dragonquest near December or November of 2011. The next book in the series, The White Dragon, heavily references the events and world building of the first two books, Dragonquest and Dragonflight before it. I thought about quitting The White Dragon to begin the series again. I thought about finding Pern’s Wikia page to remind myself of the plots of the earlier books. I did neither. I assumed that I would catch up, and for the most part, I did, though my memories of those events and those people remained much fuzzier than the memories of the characters.

That didn’t help me to fully enjoy the tale.

Jaxom was also not the precocious kid that I remembered from and enjoyed in Dragonquest and in fact doesn’t seem to be friends anymore with F’lessan, puncturing holes into what I thought would be an adorable bromance about which I wanted to read books.

Jaxom’s not interested in bromance, unless it’s with his unusual white dragon, Ruth. Jaxom has become a very “proddy” teenager, and I, for one, was not pleased to have to read about his ill-advised adolescent flings.

First, there is Coranna, the daughter of a Holder subservient to Jaxom. Jaxom isn’t interested in her till another gets jealous of Coranna’s preference for Jaxom, which everyone involved admits might be based more on his title than on Jaxom’s own merit. Once her preference is noted, however, Jaxom admits that she is pretty, and then it is not long before he is working towards giving her a “half-breed” son. The worst of it comes in one scene where Jaxom, having witnessed the Rising of a green at Fort Hold, is awash with the dangerous swirl of hormones that comes with a dragon’s Rising, and though he does admittedly not tell Ruth to go elsewhere, Ruth takes him to Coranna. Coranna begins to complain, “I wish you wouldn’t—” The narration calls this a “half-teasing scold,” but she resists Jaxom when he kisses her, possibly even attacks him with her hoe before he disarms her. This attack is admittedly is ambiguous and might be accidental, but their lovemaking here seems as ambiguously consensual as Jamie and Cersei’s in the sept (637; Martin, A Storm of Swords, 851). At any rate, the forceful taking of Coranna doesn’t sit well with me nor with Jaxom, whose solution to his ill-sitting conscience is to never again see Coranna, to drop her like a hot sack of potatoes and run. This action is repulsive and not at all heroic, but he is not punished for dropping her. Instead he falls ill during another adventure, is trapped in a tropical paradise, and finds new love in the form of one his nurses. McCaffrey is often hailed as a feminist writer, but that’s a disgusting instance of excusing patriarchy and of the wanton use of women. Admittedly, it’s possible that McCaffrey meant for these things to sit poorly with her readers, to draw attention to the flaws of the male-dominated and sex-driven society of Pern (and by extension the societies of many of the countries on Earth). I will never be able now to ask her or to ask her how she felt about Jaxom’s behavior as an older woman looking back from the twenty-first century, but I think that this is an example of the male domination and masculine template of the fantasy genre, which we’re only just beginning to counter, and the effects that that model has on even the most feminist writers.

I’m a proponent of parents knowing what their children are reading. No one younger than a teen probably ought to be reading this series for the sex scenes alone, but I think that even parents of teens ought to be ready to address Jaxom’s behavior involving women in general and particular his final scene with Coranna. It is also fair to note that while there are several, none of the sex scenes are detailed.

In The White Dragon, more broadly, the exiled Oldtimers are worried about their continued existence, looking with wobbling chins at their forthcoming destruction by old age. Meanwhile, the Oldtimers’ indolence has bred an industrious spirit into those men who moved South. The Northerners are eying the South with ideas of conquest, dominion, and self-reliance besides. The backdrop is a forthcoming war over land, which the dragonriders of Benden Weyr hope to settle through deceit before it can come to war.

I think the plot is supposed to center around Jaxom’s sense of being between—not child, not adult; Holder and not; dragonrider and not—that theme giving the book a particularly teen feel.

I enjoyed the outlandish, arrogant, and cynical Piemur and his runner-beast Stupid. Menolly is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape of deceitful or easily lulled women, though even she is lured away by sexual pleasures and hints that she’s given her heart to a man too much her elder and supervisor. Master Robinton is as delightful as ever, his easy demeanor winning over characters and myself whenever he enters the stage. Next time I give McCaffrey a go, I think I had better choose a book about the Harpers because they really seem to be the best characters.

A quick survey of the backs of the McCaffrey books owned by my roommate leaves me wondering how far in advance McCaffrey was able to craft everyone’s backstory. The White Dragon may be third in the series, but it seems that nearly every other book on the shelf happens prior to this tale (and many happen to center around the Harpers besides).

Certainly, McCaffrey seems to write with the wider epic in mind. Certainly this book and Dragonquest hint towards the widening of the world and end with the first notes of the next book’s musical movement. I don’t know what the next book is in the series chronologically, but I can almost guarantee that it will have to do with the movement of the dragonriders to the South and Toric’s fight to extend his territory and/or maintain the territory that he’s taken, based solely upon the ending of The White Dragon.

**

McCaffrey, Anne. The Dragonriders of Pern.  New York: Del Rey-Ballantine-Random, 1988.

The White Dragon first published in 1978.

This review is not endorsed by Anne McCaffrey, Del Rey, Ballantine Books, or Random House, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

May 23: Checking the Heartbeat of Kyoto

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Our first day in Kyoto, we decided to visit the Kyoto Handicraft Center, and we decided to walk there. The walk was longer than we thought and our map not as detailed as we could have hoped, but we passed several tourist sites along the way and, to borrow a phrase from BBC’s Sherlock, got “the heartbeat of the city” (oh sure, not as intimately as Sherlock does, but I could feel its pulse a bit through observation) by going on foot than by bus.

Along our route, we passed the Imperial Palace Park, peering up the slanted stonewalls to the foliage and into entrances to see winding pathways and people relaxing in the sunshine.

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We crossed the river, I think the Kamo River.

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I don’t think that the Handicraft Center was quite what either of us had imagined. It was a sort of enclosed, high-end marketplace for specialty craftsmen with staff members more than craftsmen to talk to. But we enjoyed looking at all of the pretty finery and the clever creations. It all being for sale, I took very few pictures (I often feel a twinge about taking pictures instead of purchasing things—especially when the items come from independent sellers).

Apart from selling items, the Center also offers the chance to make your own crafts. We opted for one of the more expensive but more unique and uniquely Kyōto of the crafts: damascening, the craft of (in this case) overlaying bits of gold and silver to another metal.  (Perhaps it sounds a silly thing to learn, but I wear necklaces all the time so it’s a keepsake that I can carry with me easily, and I have several fictional blacksmiths clamoring to give damascening a try already.)

Kari and I were taken into the next-door building where there were worktables for both the professionals and amateurs. We didn’t get to talk to any of the professionals (I’m not sure that I’d have wanted to interrupt them besides), but we were matched with Hiroshi, a young man, maybe a few years our elder, who spoke very good English so that even I was able to communicate with him easily (which I have to admit was a breath of fresh air after a week of smiling and bowing and letting Kari interpret). We watched a video in English first to give us a little background in the craft then were set loose with the tools and pieces provided. We were each given a circular pendant of shakudō, an alloy of copper and gold, on a block. Our pieces of shakudō had already been inscribed with the appropriate crosshatching to make the bits of gold and silver stick. It was invisible except through a magnifying glass. We used a tool a bit like a stylus, wet the tip to make the flakes of gold and silver stick to it to be moved to the pendant, and then hammered the pieces into place on our crosshatched shakudō. The flakes that we used were precut into figures and symbols, making art easier.

We left the steel pieces in Kyoto to be finished. The gold and silver overlay should shine out on a black patina, the gold and silver flush with the pendant.

While we played at craftswomen, we talked with Hiroshi about Kyoto, Japan, America, and American, teaching one another and enjoying the opportunity to learn from one another, I think, quite a bit.

Leaving the Handicraft Center, and saying goodbye to Hiroshi, we went just around the corner to the Heian Shrine. I promise we weren’t playing favorite eras.

Through the gate was a wide, pebbled area with the buildings of the shrine fencing.

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Perhaps because this was my first formal visit to a shrine complex, and also because the entries were guarded by docents or maybe by religious adherents, and because photography was prohibited, we didn’t climb any of the steps. Now, looking back through the photos that I took, I can see how much more impressive is the Heian Shrine than the Heian reconstructions at Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park, how much more detailed. Most of our time at the Shrine was spent not with the architecture, however, but in the garden paths behind.

The irises were in bloom here and water lilies and rhododendrons too. The path wound us through a forest of ornamental trees and then past ponds, back into a more wild woods, and over some skipping stones on another pond, before coming to a great pond over which a great bridge stretched. While we crossed this, I saw a water snake in the still water, but I couldn’t get its picture; it was gone too quickly.

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Leaving the shrine, we decided to try to find Gion, a neighborhood of Kyoto known for its old-style architecture and as a haunt for geishas. We passed a hole-in-the-wall crepe stand and relaxed by a smaller river—maybe even a moat more than a river—to eat our dessert.

As twilight was falling, we came upon the Yasaka Shrine complex. This complex was magical—perhaps mostly because of the time that we arrived. The lanterns were all lit and a good number of the tourists had cleared and were crowding the well-lit sidewalks and shops of Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue) instead.

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The shrines at Yasaka were mostly small, wooden, whitewash, black latticework, and that red-orange paint. It was quiet enough that I approached several to peer through the glass at the glittering gold. The main shrine was lit by probably near a hundred lit lanterns and was a wondrous site to see at the rise of a flight of steps.  Neither of these pictures captures it well.  I don’t think that sort of glow can be captured by a camera.

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Beyond that shrine, the crowds thinned still further till we could hear the fall of water from fountains, till we were alone in whole avenues of shrines with no one to fault us for wonderingly approaching, for snapping a picture where pictures might otherwise be less welcome. (I always feel a bit awkward taking pictures of shrines or altars, recognizing these as places of high holiness that others might recognize as more than some beautiful art piece.)

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Leaving the shrine complex, we joined the crowds on Shijō-dōri, wandering the brightly lit sidewalks, past shop windows, the enticing smells of restaurants, the lure of tourist shops, the music of street performers, and artists selling their wares. We ducked down several darker side roads, coming ultimately to the river again (the same river, I think, that we’d seen that morning). All through Kyoto, there are lots of women dressed in geisha costumes. It’s one of things that tourists do, rent kimonos and wander the city. I think, though, that we did see one true geisha on Shijō-dōri. I only suspect so because the Japanese men in their business suits were excitedly sneaking photographs of her. I wish I taken a far away picture just to have those men’s reactions. It was as if they were children again.

We bought ourselves warm drinks before climbing back aboard the crowded train towards the hostel.

We never found the old-style streets of Gion, but I didn’t mind much. We’d seen a lot and traveled far. In all, we covered nearly 5 miles on our feet that day just walking between the various sites (not counting wandering the sites or backtracking). Certainly makes you proud of your feet, looking at the figures.

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All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

Don’t Let Fruit Spoil: Frozen Grapes and Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Bites

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This is going to be a highly irregular post for me, but today several friends posted links to Emily Fleischaker’s Buzzfeed article “26 Foods You Should Learn to Cook In Your Twenties.” Well, it’s a timely article to be trending. In your twenties, you should also learn how to prolong the food that you buy. That’s what I did with my day off.

First, it’s no myth. A banana in your fridge will keep longer. Though the skin will turn brown more quickly, the banana flesh inside will be white long after the skin has gone a frighteningly muddy shade. I peered into my fridge last night and feared that the last of our bananas might soon start trying to communicate with us. I’d stuck it into the fridge several days back after I picked up the two remaining bananas from our fruit bowl, and the ends fell away with the ease of a blink. I didn’t want to leave the bare flesh exposed to the elements and the insects that sneak through our open windows.

I’d learned from a friend that frozen grapes are a delightful snack. When a few grapes in a bunch became overripe or just when I want a cold snack, I put the grapes into a Ziploc bag, rinse them, and stuff the full bag into the freezer. Healthier than just about any other frozen dessert and somehow one or two more quenching than a whole bowl of ice cream, freezing grapes also prolongs the fruits’ ripeness.

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I thought that the same principle might apply to bananas, and I remembered the frozen bananas delights from fairs in my childhood.

The recipe that I found on AllRecipes.com was for frozen banana bites covered with peanut butter, chocolate, and toffee bits.

(And let me take a moment to promote this website. Search for recipes for a specific dish or put in a few ingredients that you have about the house and want to use. It won’t give you your mother’s recipes, but it’s fantastic in a pinch, gives you some ideas for modifications, and might just find you some new favorites.)

I followed this recipe pretty truthfully, but I was impatient, and I didn’t have any toffee. I cut that last banana into seven pieces and put them down on a piece of tin foil that I made into a tray by curling up the edges to give the foil a bit of lip. (This makes it a bit easier to carry than a flat piece of foil, I didn’t have wax paper, and a bit of foil takes up much less space in my full fridge than a full baking sheet would have done.) I smeared peanut butter on the tops (crunchy variety gave it a toffee-like crunch) then punched toothpicks through the peanut butter and banana. These went into the freezer for maybe two hours.

A double boiler can be made by resting one pot inside of another. It’s not something I’ve done often and not for a long time, but it worked well.

Because I had only one banana to cover instead of the 4 suggested for the recipe, I used just about two handfuls of semisweet chocolate chips and maybe a teaspoon of shortening (I just scooped out a bit with my rubber spatula).

The chocolate was at just the perfect temperature and consistency for the first two banana bites that I dipped into the mixture. The spatula smoothly plastered it to the sides of the banana and then to the bottom. Then the chocolate burned. I hurried the chocolate off of the burner. The chocolate on these first two hardened into a wonderful shell as I tried to rescue my scorched chocolate.

A splash of milk smoothed the chocolate again, and I plastered it to the remaining banana bites and even got to drizzle a bit over the peanut buttery tops.

Perhaps because my chocolate had to be resuscitated, the chocolate shells took longer to freeze. They sat on their tin foil tray (I only used the one) for about an hour in the fridge before I could resist no longer and I just had to see how they’d come out.

I didn’t wait the 15 minutes before serving that the recipe suggests either. I wanted frozen banana bites.

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It was delicious. It could have used more peanut butter, and if you try the recipe, I’d suggest coating the whole thing in peanut butter rather than just the one side (or at least the top and rounded side). But otherwise… glorious. And I bet I could smear the extra peanut butter onto my frozen bites before biting too. Mmm… I’ll try that on the next one.

This is a great recipe, I think especially for the twenty-something. Peanut butter is inexpensive and doesn’t spoil in a cabinet (or I’ve never had it spoil, even if it’s separated a bit). Bananas are perhaps the least expensive fruit that you can buy (usually less than 60¢ per pound when it’s available at all in the grocery store). And once frozen, I bet these will keep forever (not that they’ll be kept more than a few days). They might be a healthier option than some frozen treats. There’s fresh fruit and protein in the peanut butter, but the chocolate isn’t going to help make these any healthier nor is the shortening. I’m not sure why the recipe called for shortening. It’s possible—even likely—that that ingredient could be left out without any ill effects.

If any of you try this recipe, I’d love to hear how it goes. Leave me a comment or a link.

All photos are mine.  Click to view them larger.

Book Review: Half Upon A Time is a Comfortable Addition to the Genre

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The more time that I spent in the world of James Riley’s Half Upon a Time, first in a trilogy by the same name, the more deeply I became entrenched. I prefer, I admit, to be lost immediately to a world, but I am still impressed that at no point during the book was I thrown out of the world, and that, by the end, I was even marking favorite lines, mostly things that applied aptly to the world of my WIP, but also this wonderful moment of rare recognition within the genre of medieval fantasy: “Old age? I’m fourteen. That’s barely middle age” (282).

The story opens on Jack, son of Jack from the tale of the beanstalk, who lives in a small rural town with his grandfather. His grandfather, an adventure like Jack’s father, wants Jack to be an adventurer and hero too. Jack is enrolled with all the village boys in hero lessons. But Jack, who believes there are no unmarried princesses in the kingdom, has a difficult time taking the lessons seriously—and he’s not very good at rescuing imaginary princesses. As Jack and his grandfather are on their way home from another failed exam in which Jack lets the “princess” die, a girl wearing a tunic emblazoned with small jewels that spell “PUNK PRINCESS” falls from the sky and right on top of Jack.

May denies that she is royalty. She does not know how she has gotten there. All that she knows is that her grandmother has been kidnapped by a man dressed all in green and seven shorter men.

Believing that May is a princess—even the granddaughter of the missing Snow White—Jack is convinced that he has to protect her, and he and the princess escape the village and the unwanted attentions of Jack’s classmates on a demon horse tamed only by a magic harness to begin their quest to rescue Snow White.

On their journey, they fight and make allies among the familiar fairy tale characters including the Big Bad Wolf; the witch in the gingerbread house; a Prince Charming, Philip; Philip’s fairy godmother, Merriweather; Red Riding Hood; and the wicked fairy, Malevolent.

Riley creates a world in which all of these familiar characters exist twisted in a new and exciting way. He invents a history that has not filtered through to our world with the fairy tales, where the Western Kingdoms came together under the leadership of Snow White to defeat the Wicked Queen and her Magic Mirror. Snow White’s team of deadly assassins and specialists, which includes Rose Red, Rapunzel, and the Big Bad Wolf, stormed the Wicked Queen’s palace and defeated her, but none but Rapunzel have been seen since.

That alone makes this a more feminist fairy tale retelling. But also May herself is at least as heroic as Jack, though both, frankly, survive the tale more by luck and succor than on their own strengths or wit. Still, she’s a mouthy and resourceful girl.

Jack is equally mouthy and sarcastic, and also somewhat cynical, falling well into the modus operandi of heroes in today’s YA and teen fiction, joining Hiccup, Jace, Jaron, even Percy Jackson and Augustus Waters.

Riley’s narrative style fits well with that of the authors of those protagonists too, particularly the middle-grade writers, Rick Riordan and Cressida Cowell, who are publishing some of my favorite series.

The pace is quick, Jack and May stumbling into and out of trouble without much rest. Jack and May and even Philip became more likeable the further that I read—though whether that is because I was becoming more ensconced in the world or if I was becoming more ensconced in the world because I was coming to better love the heroes is a question that I cannot answer.

I can’t say that this was in any way a life-changing book for me, but it was certainly enjoyable, enough so that I would like to get my hands on its sequels, and it’s a lovely addition to the genre and subgenre. I’ve already recommended it to a few customers.

***1/2

Riley, James. Half Upon a Time. New York: Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 2011. First published 2010.

This review is not endorsed by James Riley, Aladdin, or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: May and June Picture Book Roundup: Friends Are the Best

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So first off, my apologies for lapsing, but between even these past two months, I haven’t read all that many picture books, so all’s well that ends well. June’s roundup with its one book would have been a dull and short post.

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Sherlock Holmes in the Hound of the Baskervilles: A BabyLit Sound Primer by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Alison Oliver. Gibbs Smith, 2013.

BabyLit has really done some unique things with the primer, first focusing on individual groups of ideas and second using famous works of literature to give their primers more structure than many primers and a very unique structure compared to those that’ll take a reader through a day in the life of a baby or the actions of bedtime or the actions of waking up. Several of the more recent BabyLit primers that I’ve read have included quotes from the original books as part of the book. The primer based on Sherlock Holmes does not. Its focus is sound: scraping boots on hillside scree, creaking stairs, clattering wheels, screeching gates, and howling hounds…. These are more difficult words than those in most primers; that’s typical of BabyLit. The colors are darker. There’s obviously supposed to be an eerie air to the illustrations. For being unique, I have to, as usual, give BabyLit higher marks.

***

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Boom Snot Twitty by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Renata Liwska. Viking-Penguin, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I really enjoyed Boom Snot Twitty. This I read at a story hour that either on purpose or by accident focused on close friendships.

One of the girls who was at the story time got hung up on Snot’s name and would not believe me when I said that it might be a perfectly beautiful name for a snail. I didn’t expect this to be such a point of contention, and when it arose, I hoped to be able to make it a learning experience about not teasing someone because her name is not one that you would consider “normal,” but I fear that my point did not come across.

The three friends have three very different personalities, but they each allow one another to act and react as they are most comfortable without complaining about one another’s habit. Despite different personalities and different reactions, they remain friends, and are comfortable with one another—comfortable enough to snuggle beside one another to rest—and they share their experiences and their talents and their personalities.

The day takes an unexpected turn when a violent storm presents the friends with a set of difficulties. This adds to the plot.

***

Good Night, Little Dragons by Leigh Ann Tyson and illustrated by Jim Bernardin. Golden-Random, 2012.

So yes, this had a cute, yawning, pink dragon on the cover. The illustrations, since I’ve started there, are bright, lively, and include many wonderful little details that add to the charm of the story, like firefighter mice and the shield that serves as the family’s name plaque and proclaims the dragon family to be “The Darlings.” I have to take a moment to point out too the similarity in style and most obviously in the dragonets colors to those of Despicable Me’s Sleepy Kittens because I feel it would be remiss of me to not wonder if Mr. Bernardin had those kittens in mind when he was illustrating this somewhat similar story. The story takes the young dragons from rambunctious play, through the process of getting ready for bed, to sleep. It does not try to take the dragons’ behaviors and too strictly make them human for the benefit of the young reader; while the dragonets do have to dress in their pajamas and brush their teeth, they still fly about and breathe fire. The real draw of this story for me is the inclusion of dragons, and Bernardin’s adorable illustrations of them.

***

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Hopper and Wilson Fetch a Star by Maria van Lieshout. Philomel-Penguin, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

This was another in our series on friendships. Unfortunately, I didn’t do my research for this book. This is the sequel to a book called simply Hopper and Wilson, and I will have to say that this book does not do a good job of introducing the characters. I was unsure until several pages in which character was Hopper and which was Wilson and I cannot remember now which is which either. Maria van Lieshout otherwise surprised me, though. She writes with a poetry that’s not found in many picture books anymore, and she includes the subtlest use of the unexpected and incredibly ridiculous. Hopper and Wilson sail a paper airplane that runs on lemonade, for example; van Lieshout doesn’t bat an eye at or acknowledge the impossibility of this; I enjoy her acceptance of an open imagination. In this adventure, the two friends say goodbye to their cactus friend on the pier and take off for the skies in search of a star to bring back to be their personal nightlight. Van Lieshout’s illustrations are beautiful and vibrant, but her characters are not particularly expressive, except at their most dejected. The ending where the friends are reunited with their cactus and return to their home and regard the perfect star that led them back to one another after they are separated is just heartwarming to the point of tears. For unexpected outpourings of emotion, for clever use of subtle surprise, and fearlessness of language, I have to rate Hopper and Wilson Fetch a Star quite highly.

**** 

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Today I Will Fly! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

And now we circle back to Mo Willems, as we usually do. And what would a series on friendship be without Elephant and Piggie? In this adventure, the bold Piggie decides that today she will fly, and the practical Gerald reminds her that pigs cannot fly, but Piggie persists, and eventually succeeds—in a manner—with help. It is a story lauding outrageous thought, and belief in one’s ability to do the impossible, but at the same time it refrains from suggesting anything too dangerous because it reminds us that for the impossible to be possible, we always need help, so at least nothing dangerous will be achieved alone.

****

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Are You Ready to Play Outside? by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2008.

Intended audience: Ages 4-8. In this, Elephant and Piggie are excited to be able to play outside, but then it starts to rain, and Piggie is miserable and furious with the rain for ruining their plans. But the worms show Piggie and Gerald how they can have fun in the rain too, how the rain does not have to stop their plans. Piggie and Gerald do play in the rain as they would have in the sunshine, and Piggie loves playing in the rain after she tries it, and then is sad when the rain stops. Elephant Gerald is his wonderful self and helps to cheer up his friend as he always does, but his solution makes their friendship seem a bit unbalanced though the lesson that the weather does not have to ruin plans or play remains a good one.

***

May 22: Out Train Windows and in New Cities

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The 22nd was a travel day. We got on the train in Koma, switched to the shinkansen in Morioka and rode it to Kyoto.

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We crossed several rivers like this, wide and shallow, though I don’t think that these were the mouths of rivers.  Perhaps they were.  I spied the sea several times from the train windows, though I never could get a pictures of it.  I showed itself only in flashes, past cities and towns that soon themselves disappeared behind steep mountainsides.

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A full day of travel and an unfamiliar city leaves one pretty disoriented, and though Kari had looked at the map, and we’d both seen that it ought to be pretty easy to find our hostel, we had the look of tourists—and not just because we were lighter-haired than the majority of the population.

Another cherished memory of the goodness of people remains a boy maybe our age who, while we were looking at a map, went out of his way to come up to ask if we needed help—in English even. He pointed us in the right direction then sped back the way that he had come, which is how I know that he changed his course to help us.

Our hostel, Hostel Kanouya, was in a traditional style house down a quiet side street surrounded by other traditional homes. The owner of the hostel greeted us and helped us up a very steep set of stairs to our room. The area was wide. It was only the two of us, so there was room for both futons and a small table with comfortable floor chairs.

Having settled ourselves and our bags a bit, we went out in search of dinner, and found a nearby restaurant nearer the traditional Japanese style. We took off our shoes and settled onto seats that let our feet hang into almost a trough below the countertop. It was late. There was only one other patron in the restaurant, a middle-aged man, who seemed to be friends with the restaurant’s owner. They were chatting amiably while he ate his dinner. We ordered a favorite of Kari’s, Kansai-style okonomiyaki, which Kari described to me as something like a hearty Japanese pancake, but I would say is some wonderful combination of hash browns and omelets with several sauces drizzled over it as well as red ginger to give it a really delicious and pleasantly varied zing. While our hostess mixed ingredients and cooked the okonomiyaki on the hot griddle that ran the length of the countertop, she kept chatting with her friend, and I let my attention wander to the crime drama that was playing on the TV beside us. Kari and the two friends exchanged eager questions and answers while I smiled and bobbed my head and waved hello when introduced.

It was a wonderfully pleasant way to end the evening.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

Book Review: Patrick Rothfuss, Hero Who Can Call The Name of the Wind

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For years, friends have been raving about the misadventures of Kvothe and even more so about the poetry of Patrick Rothfuss. Years back, I found The Name of the Wind in the library. I read the first few paragraphs, and I was blown away by the weight of each word, the perfection of and care taken with each sentence and paragraph break, and the images that were painted. I said, “I don’t have time for this.” I wanted to give it the time that I thought I would need to enjoy it. I’m so sad that it took me years to decide to have time for it.

The prologue is awesome, and when paired with the epilogue, it left me a blabbering mess of “Did he just— He did!” I don’t even really know how to begin to describe to you the wonder of what Rothfuss did with those four pages. I’ve never seen a wizards’ knot, but I think now that I might have read one.

Now, don’t, like me, be daunted by the prologue. This book reads surprisingly fast. Granted, I did decide to read it when I knew that I would have more than my usual free time, but I don’t think that it would have been bogged down by the usual pace of life, and I think I’d have been stealing moments to read just a little more. Despite criticism from friends who were pushed into saying something by the gabbling Facebook status that I posted after finishing the book and despite that I recognize their criticism as valid, I’m still hankering for the second in the series and was not sated but rather my appetite increased by the short story, “The Lightning Tree,” recently released in Rogues.

Kvothe is fairly likeable if a little pompous and self-aggrandizing (though in fairness he is the storyteller and can be expected to shed himself in the best light just as any of us would) but Rothfuss is the real star of The Name of the Wind. I enjoyed Kvothe’s adventures, but I enjoyed Rothfuss’ storytelling and poetry so much more. Rothfuss is a writer’s writer often alluding to the process and perils of writing by having his protagonist engage in storytelling, and there is much within the novel that rang like a hammer against a nail of truth and sympathy driven into myself. Another of my favorite sections is the four pages that Kvothe and Rothfuss take trying to decide how to describe one character because those pages allude so fiercely to the difficulty of describing characters in fiction (417-420).

The Name of the Wind and presumably the whole of The Kingkiller Chronicles are written with a frame story, and the two stories weave together to drive the reader on into the series. Kote the barman is confronted in the present-day with the resurfacing of his past, from which he has run and hid, but which has found him at last. He battles a darkness that manifests as overgrown spiders, tries to brush aside his knowledge of how to destroy them as garnered secondhand from visitors to his lonely tavern, but more privately lets slip something about a war that is his fault, of which I guess that these creatures are a symptom. His student, Bast, is worried about his Reshi and is using the famed storyteller, Chronicler, to try and get Kvothe to remember himself and become what he was. Chronicler is looking for a story, and the truth. So Kvothe is wheedled into telling his story, and he takes us back to his childhood. The Name of the Wind, the first of the three days that Kvothe believes that his story will take to be told, spans from Kvothe’s happy youth, to his tragic tween and teen years, to his first few terms at university, where he distinguishes himself but not perhaps in the ways that he had hoped, and during which time he meets an alluring girl and worries over whether or not he has her heart. This first book of the trilogy has many elements of the bildungsroman, and the adult Kote, looking back, talks about his story as if it is indeed the education and becoming of himself: “If you are eager to find the reason I became the Kvothe they tell stories about, you could look there, I suppose” (186).

Kvothe’s time at the university can be dissected too in terms of the school story, where those familiar with the genre (as many of us unwittingly are thanks to J. K. Rowling) will recognize many familiar patterns: the rivalry with the more powerful peer, difficulties in learning, the grudges held by professors, the unexpected aid from those same or other professors, a squad of friends on whom one can rely when difficulties arise in the classroom and outside of it…. I’ve said before that one of the perils of the school story is the large cast that it calls for. Rothfuss handles the cast quite well. He does not unnecessarily dive into everyone’s backstories, and their characters do seem to enter—as they should—onto the stage only when Kvothe needs them to do, but they seem too to have lives and personalities outside of Kvothe, and that is imperative to good characterization and an element too frequently overlooked when one is working with a larger cast.

In the university, Rothfuss’ fantasy is given scientific examination. Dragons are large fire-breathing lizards but are considered natural. Magic is given names like sympathy, which applies scientific principles like the inability of energy to be created or destroyed to the manipulation of objects. Naming is another form of magic that has more in common with Ursula K. LeGuin’s and Diane Duane’s models. I have always been a fan of the blending of magic and science, and so Rothfuss’ models tug at my heart. It’s clear that, as with the language and craft he uses in storytelling, Rothfuss has given a lot of thought to magic and world-building. I’m interested to see if the scientific nature of magic persists throughout the series. I don’t know how to apply science to some of the things that the elder Kvothe has clearly encountered: fey, spider demons, the angelic Amyr, and wraithlike Chandrain.   Kvothe reminds me in that way of myself:  He’s learned the science but he won’t give up the magic despite people’s judgements of his “childlike” fascination with the truth of the world that they can’t see.

If you enjoy words, if you enjoy writing, I must recommend this book as a meaty helping of prose.

*****

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day One: The Name of the Wind. New York: DAW-Penguin, 2008.  First published 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW Books, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

May 21: The Kindness of Strangers and a Place to Play

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Our last day in Iwate, the activity was determined by weather and travel guide. It rained all day. Not a downpour, but a steady, solid rain that had the employees at the Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park huddling under lilac umbrellas and offering extras to those of us who were not taking advantage of our own. It was rather a sweet gesture, but at some point you just have to decide to embrace the rain—until it becomes too much and there’s too little cover and it’s time to cower back beneath the umbrella.

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Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park was described in a travel guide as like the Williamsburg of Japan. There were not so many actors on site while we were there, but that might’ve been the weather and might’ve been the time of year. Instead the characters were realistic statues and the dialogue was provided by broadcasted recording and the scenes described by plaques.

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The park’s exhibits are housed in reconstructions of Heian era (790s-1180s) buildings. Along with the dioramas, there a few stations of interactive costumes and two whole buildings of trick art (of which we took pretty great advantage, happily taking all of the ridiculous pictures that the artwork offered us, though little of it had anything to do with the history we’d come to learn). In short, it is a very fun place to play and take pictures and imagine and maybe learn some history. The site is often used for period films.

Because of the rain, we had the park practically to ourselves (once the school trip left, which they did within maybe the first forty minutes that we were there).

The main complex is comprised of government buildings with lots of red-orange and yellow paint. There are a few dioramas, a station with play armor to try on and play weapons to wield in photographs, and then artifacts kept behind glass—clothes and game pieces and musical instruments and weaponry. (Play armor on the left, historical artifact on the right.)

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There is another complex behind, a maze of buildings and covered walkways between, particularly suited for a rainy day. In these rooms there are many more dioramas, and it feels a bit more like a museum, albeit one that you have to walk through to find the exhibits. This, I think, is a reproduction of a military leader’s residence. It does not have the ornate paint of the other complex, instead having exposed wood and whitewash.

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Up a steep set of stairs and set back in the woods, there’s a reproduction of Konjikdo, a World Heritage site not far from Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park—in fact the shrine that the owners of the teashop in Ichinoseki had extolled to us two days before. I thought it odd to have a reproduction so near the original, but having it there allows me to pretend to have been to one more site than we had time for (the original I’m sure is more grand and more impressive, but I will have to settle for what I was able to see in my limited time).

We were lured into one more exhibit by the promise of a grand edifice that the guide map calls the Ataka Gate, probably a gatehouse or maybe a border patrol station, and a garden in bloom. I may have missed the cherry blossoms, but the lotuses were beautiful.

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We had to go through the gate obviously, and then we decided to continue. Up another hill, a whole village has been reconstructed with houses, granaries, wells, stables with realistic horse statues (I don’t want to think that the coats were horse skins, but they might have been horse skins), and something that was either a blacksmith’s or a shrine. There was a small museum room too with reproductions of artwork telling the story of the Oshu-Fujiwara Clan that had ruled in this area during the Heian period.

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We stayed past the last of the free shuttles, deciding that we would rather take full advantage of the park, the exhibits of which were always nearer than the map made them seem, than take advantage of the shuttle service. By the time we’d descended the hill from the village, the shops had all closed. The staff knew that we were still in the park and, as we asked if we could call a taxi, presented us with origami stars, which I hope to someday be able to paste into a scrapbook—one more gift and kindness from strangers with whom I could barely communicate.

The park is not all that far from the train station in Mizusawa and the taxi came quickly. One of the women from the park came out into the rain beneath her umbrella to direct the taxi driver for us, doing us one last kindness.

Along with a bit of history and that Kari really needs to get into some of the interactive museums that I’ve visited in the past, this trip really taught me about the kindness of these people.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

May 20: How Do You Clean a Tatami Mat?

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Kari wasn’t able to get the whole of the time that I was with her away from work, so this day I have no pictures for you, and I have only a few stories.

This was a day of rest for me, but when I’m home, days off tend also to mean days to do chores. I decided to surprise Kari by doing as many of her chores as I could do. Except for the dishes, this was an exercise in ingenuity and improvisation and guesswork. I used a mop to sweep floors and damp paper towels in place of dustpans. I realized that no one had ever thought to teach me how to clean a tatami mat, so I used my hands to brush the dust to the wood molding that separated rooms and held the runners for the sliding walls. Wood I did know how to clean.

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When Kari did get home, we decided to walk across the railway overpass in search of a ramen restaurant. It was a breezy but not bitterly cold evening and from the top of the overpass the view was pretty stellar, but I foolishly used my mental camera again instead of my physical one. (One day perhaps we will have Pensieves and then I can show you.)

As it got dark and we were walking past farms and roadside brush, I was greatly startled by a large, scuttling spider, but the tension was broken when from behind us we heard the young, innocent, excited call of “Kari Sensei!” One of Kari’s students was driving past. The car met us at the intersection and we talked a moment, with the kids leaning out the open car windows. I don’t remember being so excited to see my teachers outside of school. I mostly remember being disconcerted because I and my teachers were out of context when we met at the supermarket. It was one of the sweeter interactions to which I was privy in Japan. Though, to be fair, the age of the participants does help to sweeten it. Kids are always often adorable.

The ramen restaurant was closed, and the options for dining in Koma are scarce, so we adopted Plan B and went into a nearby convenience store and picked up several packages of instant rice and Japanese curry, which we cooked in the microwave before settling down for a movie on the laptop.

Photograph is mine.  Click to see it larger.