Tag Archives: feminist

Challenge: Legal Theft: Binary (381 words)

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Dread is bubblegum and hot pink. It spews from big lips and big eyes and big breasts. It cinches like an impossibly narrow waist. It smells like fake tans and cosmetic. It’s heavy on shoulders I can’t bare because it will be a distraction to the boys in school, because men will use my bare shoulders as an excuse to touch and to catcall and to chase and to capture and to smother and to crush and to tear. These are facts I’ve understood if I haven’t been able to vocalize them since I was old enough to have these blonde haired models splay their legs to sit horseback bare-butted because tight dresses wouldn’t let them ride. Their legs don’t spread wide enough and they never came with pants; they were meant to stand tall and straight and pretty on feet bent unnaturally by high heels that I’ve lost in corners and under the bed. These dolls were never meant to act. They were never meant to do.

There’s the lesson. Stand straight, wear heels, wear lipstick and eye shadow and eyeliner and mascara. We’ll tell you that you can be anything, but you can do nothing, and you need to remember it.

To do anything is unnatural.

Know your limits.

Know your place.

Know your worth.

$9.99 the package says.

That price tag is like a ball and chain around legs that must sting from the bite of a razor because a manufacturer needs more money and they say that my natural hair is ugly, is unkempt, is unsanitary. It hobbles legs that shouldn’t touch one another at the thighs but do, that chafe beneath skirts that are mandatory for formal occasions.

There are no choices in this aisle. There are only limits and boundaries.

This, it says, is girl. This is feminine. The next aisle over—the aisle of blue and trucks and heroes and weapons and tool kits—is not for you. Those are what you cannot be. And here is what you are and what you cannot do.

Stand straight, wear heels, cover up your face, eat less, bend and break your bones, pinch your body till it fits in the plastic mold and you can stand with pride beside these dolls on the shelves, an example.

This week I challenged my friends to join me in the muddy, bloodied waters of gender conformity and nonconformity because it is a topic that’s been thrust into the limelight of late and it’s been on my mind. This was not really the piece I intended to write. I intended to explain how I think gender is a man-made problem and any adherence to a binary is foolish. Instead what you got was an imagined walk down a fictional but too realistic aisle in a toy store—you all know the one—and everything it makes me feel and says to me now. I didn’t want to write this piece because it’s been said before—again and again and again—but I’m still hearing that there are only two choices, defined by blue and pink, by male protagonist and female protagonist. I know things have improved and the aisle that I describe is largely that of my childhood in the 90s, but if people are still toting this binary defined by marketing, apparently, I still need to write and publish this piece.

Good night.

Trebez from Machete Diplomacy joined me in this challenge. Her piece, “Rib to Rib,” is way more subtle. Thanks, Trebez!

Book Reviews: Special Edition Picture Book Roundup: Ahoy, Mateys! Activity Books and a Graphic Novel

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pirates_of_the_silver_coastThree Thieves, Book 5: Pirates of the Silver Coast by Scott Chantler. Kids Can, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7.

I read this fifth book in the graphic novel series, Three Thieves, without having read any of the others and without knowing anything about the series, even so it was pretty easy to guess at the plot thus far. Dessa is searching for her missing brother. She and her companions have broken some laws (including laws about theft) doing so, and Captain Drake is trying to track them down. At this point, Dessa has stolen Drake’s horse and has a map to an island surrounded by dark legend. She needs a ship to take her there. Drake is tarrying at a fortuneteller’s stall while he awaits a new horse to go forward. You get the feeling that Dessa and her band are not only protagonists but probably good people too, people you could expect to do some thrilling heroics while committing crime. While the plot might be filled with clichés, clichés are often cliché for a reason. These plots work. They’re exciting, the things of legends. What’s more Chandler plays here with the traditional tale, placing a girl in charge of a band of notorious, misfit thieves, all cast out presumably from their various cultures, and by having the pirate king reveal herself as a woman too. All of these twists and the thieves’ time with the pirates come too easily and too quickly for my taste. I think I’d have preferred to see this all done in a novel, where we could take time to linger in fear before the resolution appears. Having read only this piece of a longer story, I’m not sure that I can judge much of the arc. Drake’s piece of this particular volume was maybe the space of half an hour, tops. Still it was an enjoyable way to spend a few minutes, getting this piece of the story, making guesses about what had come before and what will come after.

***

yhst-137970348157658_2399_460501500Pirate Queens: Notorious Women of the Sea by John Green (no, not that John Green). Dover, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 8+, Grades 3+

This is a Dover coloring book, and if you’re looking for a coloring book that is a little less busy, with blocks a little larger than the average adult coloring book, but not a child’s coloring book with big, goofy cartoons or characters marketed to toddlers or even to elementary school students (as with Disney’s coloring books to accompany their movies), Dover is where you should look. Their coloring pages are realistic drawings, left free of color, and free of the zentangle that busies most adult coloring books. This particular book is historically educational and feminist besides, offering quick snapshots of women in a man’s field, who have been painted out of most histories and legends, from all over the world and from all across the timeline—from 480 BCE all the way up to the 1800s CE, all chronologically listed in the book so as to create a easily tracked history of women and the sea. I know that piracy is not a glamorous and romantic position that, say, Disney’s recent movie franchise has made it out to be and that oftentimes it is neither legal nor kindly, but these are still bold, brash women who made a difference in history and to whom I can respect in some part anyway for that. Some are self-made, some inherited their position upon the deaths of their husbands, some were trying to escape, some were trying to defend their people, but these are women of the sea (not all of them are pirates so much as captains and admirals), and these are leaders.

*****

2771160Maze Craze: Pirate Mazes by Don-Oliver Matthies. Sterling, 2003.

This book is really intended I think for younger audiences. It attempts to create a loose story of the pirate Captain Silver seeking treasure—because that’s what pirates do, right?—and involve the audience in his quest. I can’t say that it’s a particularly well written story, but of course, the story here is not the point—the mazes are. There are different challenges on the maze theme, but I don’t spend a lot of time with mazes, and I didn’t sit down to complete any of the puzzles (all three of these books were gifts I sent off to other people.  Hello, other people!) so I can’t judge the book on those.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Reviews: December 2015 Picture Book Roundup: THREE Five-Stars and Some Christmas Leftovers

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Christmas Leftovers

9780399243202Spot’s Christmas by Eric Hill. Warne-Penguin Random, 2004. Ages: 0-3.

This was a fairly lackluster book, which really I probably ought to have expected as this is a holiday spin-off book. Spot, a popular character of his own book series and television series, performs some of the acts of celebration surrounding Christmas: decorating the tree, singing carols, baking cookies and cake, hanging stockings. He knows Santa came because the stockings are full in the morning. Other than being an adorable roly-poly puppy and fairly expressive, there was little story, no moral, and not much really to say.

***

9780553498394How to Catch a Santa by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I didn’t realize that this was of the same series as How to Babysit a Grandpa, Grandma, and Surprise a Dad. As well as those first two especially have been selling, I have not read any of them, and I was not particularly thrilled by this one. There’s not a lot of story, but a lot of text. “Don’t you have a zillion questions?” A list of questions follows. “Maybe you have things you want to tell him?” A list of things that you might want to tell Santa follows. “And maybe you have things you want to give him?” A list of things to give him follows. “Okay, now you know what you want to do once you catch Santa. Now it’s time to figure out how to do it.” A list of some tips and suggestions follows. While there are some creative and sweet ideas here, I just don’t like the format—and it seems like it’s becoming more prevalent within picture books.

**1/2

The Critically Acclaimed

9780451469908Llama Llama Red Pajamas by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This is a new classic and has sparked a whole series of books. Llama Llama in this first adventure is sent to bed, but he misses his mama, he’s nervous in the dark, he wants a glass of water, but mama’s downstairs on the phone and isn’t coming to answer Llama Llama’s pleas for her to come back to the bedroom. The story ends with the moral that mama always loves you even if she isn’t immediately available. The text is full of end rhymes and internal rhyme. It’s a good reminder of a parent’s love.

****

9780803736801Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I could have been more impressed with this book. I thought what had thrown me off was the somewhat clunky progression of ideas that repeats itself, I feel, unnecessarily so that we have at least two very ardent warnings about spicy salsa—do we need two? The more I reflect on it, though, the more I think that what was even more off-putting was the questions asked of the dragons to which the dragons were never allowed to respond. The dragons are silent throughout this book, and that made the text feel clunky because why ask questions if you don’t want an answer? Why even have the dragons in the text until you need them there to offer proof of your previous declaratory statements about them loving tacos but hating spicy salsa? All of the hard t’s and d’s and p’s sounds were fun.

***

FIVE WHOLE STARS

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Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This little book came sweeping up and stole my heart. The narrator is an adorably illustrated little penguin with the—hic!—hiccups. He pleads with the audience directly for their help. He’s tried everything to get rid of the hiccups that he developed after eating too much spicy chili last week, but nothing’s worked, so his friend Frederick has told the penguin that he would try to frighten the hiccups out of him. I was surprised that my audience was not as excited as I was for the opportunity to shout, “BOO!” The penguin forgets the audience to scold Frederick for frightening him so badly, but then realizes that his hiccups are gone and agrees to join Frederick for celebratory tacos, and—surprise, surprise—those spicy tacos give him another bout of—hic!—hiccups.

*****

stacks_image_17Part-Time Princess by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Cambria Evans. Disney-Hyperion, 2013.

In her sleep, this regular girl becomes a princess in beautiful dresses and crown, who fights dragonfire to save her kingdom, who lassos the dragon but invites him to tea instead of listening to the demands for the dragon’s death by her fearful subjects and realizes that he is a good dragon who is just upset that his crayons were melted. She meets a queen, and they play in the mud, and she takes a bath with bubbles, a high dive, and a dolphin. She isn’t scared of trolls either but dances with the head troll and shows her subjects that trolls are neither frightening or mean. There is a handsome prince, but she’s too busy saving the kingdom to marry now. She is tired in the morning, and there is glitter in her hair. There is glitter in her mother’s hair too; she is the queen. This is a good alternate princess narrative particularly for those girls who do want to marry princes and wear frilly dresses and eat three slice of pink cake for tea.

*****

9781452125329_350_4Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle, 2015.

It’s the story of Cinderella—set in space! This Cinderella fixes the household robots and machines but dreams of fixing fancy space ships. The family is invited to the royal parade, and Cinderella’s stepmother says that she can come if she can fix their broken space ship, but the stepsisters take Cinderella’s toolbox with them to the parade, leaving her stranded. Cinderella’s friend, the robot mouse Murgatroyd, sends an S.O.S. and summons Cinderella’s fairy godrobot, who magics Cinderella up some new tools: a sonic socket wrench (yeah, I saw that, Underwood), a blue space suit with jewels and pockets, and a power gem that will run out at midnight. Then it’s off to the parade, but the prince’s ship is smoking, and he doesn’t have a mechanic. Cinderella, masked behind the dome of her space suit, flies over and saves the prince’s ship. He invites her to the Gravity-Free Ball in thanks, and they talk for hours of space ships, but she has to run away before the clock strikes midnight. The sonic wrench falls out of her pocket. The prince goes searching for her, and brings a broken ship with him across the galaxy. The stepfamily tries to fix the ship, but can’t. The mouse helps Cinderella escape the attic into which her stepmother has locked her and left her tied up. Cinderella grabs her wrench back from the prince and fixes the ship. The prince asks her to marry him, and she thinks about it, but decides that she is too young. She offers to be his mechanic instead, and she goes to live at the palace, and fixes fancy space ships, just as she always dreamed she might do. Her fulfilled wish is a job that she loves in a field that here on earth is dominated by men.

This has all the elements of the classic fairy tale story, but the fairy tale ending is not one that includes marriage. My young audience was curious why she didn’t want to marry the prince. I’m not sure if I should be glad that I got to explain that not everyone’s dream is to get married and put that thought in their young minds or I’m sad that I had to explain. The handsome prince is a dark-skinned besides, though it’s never mentioned in the text, and we may have Hunt more than Underwood to thank for that.

There are a lot of larger words here, some of which I think went over the heads of my audience, but they didn’t seem phased by not knowing how to define a sprocket.

The text relied surprisingly heavily on the illustrations here. It almost seemed as if there were holes in the text itself, perhaps the text being limited by the rhyme, but the illustrations filled in those holes well, showing us why, for example, Cinderella would cry out for her toolbox. We had fun looking at the details of the illustrations: the robots, the aliens.

Now I have a question for fellow readers: The endpapers show Cinderella’s tools, all nicely labeled. One of the spaces is empty. Has anyone found that tool? Maybe in one of the book’s illustrations? Why is it missing?

*****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

 

Album Review: Hamilton: Not Your Granddad’s Broadway Musical

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Surprise!  It’s a review of a soundtrack, not a book.

Lin-Manuel Miranda became an inspiration and favorite celebrity of mine when In the Heights, his first musical, the concept of which he began working on in his college sophomore year, went on to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2008. My sister and I somehow managed to get tickets for the show afterwards. I’ve been excited about Miranda’s newest release, now titled Hamilton, since finding a video of his preview of it at the White House Evening of Poetry in 2009.

“I’m actually working on a hip-hop album. It’s a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. You laugh, but it’s true!”

(Miranda has collaborated with others between In the Heights and Hamilton—notably on Bring It On—but this is the first for which he has written the book and the first musical since In the Heights on which he alone is given credit for the music and lyrics.)

I have not been able to see this musical, but I have listened to the soundtrack… a lot. The story seems to be told exclusively or almost exclusively in song without spoken dialogue, so I feel that I can discuss the story without having seen the play, though I want to make it clear that I have not experienced this play fully.

Hamilton is a biopic about Alexander Hamilton, free of the whitewashing that he’s been subjected to in my textbooks at least, starting with his childhood in the Caribbean, though the Revolutionary War, the founding and structuring of the American government, and ending with his death and immediate legacy—and by creating this musical, which has garnered quite a lot of attention, helping to build his more remote legacy.

Hamilton’s fame particularly within the social media sphere I think comes at a very… interesting and potentially important time. I think more people—particularly more people of the age that consist of the primary consumers and target audience of most social media sites and perhaps the primary consumers of hip-hop music too—are paying more attention to politics this year than previously. The twenty-somethings are about to vote in their first or second presidential election and are being inundated by news about the presidential candidates.

Moreover, with America and the world deciding how to treat refugees and many of the ugly things that are being said and cheered, a reminder that our country was built with the help of at least two very important immigrants (Hamilton and Lafayette, both commanders at the Battle of Yorktown, last of the Revolutionary War) is timely.

The (mal)treatment of immigrants is hardly the only current social issue to surface in this historical narrative. The feminist (“ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m gonna compel him to include women in the sequel” 1.5*) and African American struggles (“Laurens is in South Carolina, redefining bravery: We’ll never be free till we end slavery” 1.18) for equality are both present in the narrative as is the debate between isolationism versus interventionism, which has arisen again with new vigor as America and the world look at the situation in Syria and the unrest caused by ISIS: “If we try to fight in every revolution in the world, we never stop. Where do we draw the line?” (2.7) That so many of the debates and issues in this history are still current tells me much about what we as a nation have learned and more sadly have not learned. We are a nation of people who probably know of Hamilton only that he was shot and killed in a duel (maybe we know that it was Burr who shot him), and we are proving that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it—over and over and over again.

It is not only the relevancy of the issues that make this such a contemporary piece, of course. The music itself—drawing particularly from hip-hop and rap—help to broaden the scope of Hamilton’s reach and to make the story available to a younger audience, in particular. (I’ve actually had difficulty selling this CD because a lot of the people who come to the store looking for history books are not interested in rap or hip-hop, but I have seen younger adults and teens picking up the autobiography from which this musical is adapted—Ron Chernow’s Hamilton.)

I cannot pretend to speak about this on a musical level. I am just not versed enough in the subject to speak eloquently, but I can speak on the poetry and complexity and play of Miranda’s language and of the story and characters, which is astounding and wonderful—easily on par with Mumford & Sons or Ed Sheeran, better-known, more mainstream musicians.

In that same preview in 2009, Miranda said of Hamilton, “I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.” The character of Hamilton’s wife Eliza describes his first letters: “Your sentences left me defenseless. You built me palaces out of paragraphs, you built cathedrals” (2.15).

Miranda said in a 60 Minutes interview: “I believe [rap] is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story because it has more words per measure than any other musical genre, it has rhythm, and it has density, and if Hamilton has anything in his writing, it was this density.”

In a broader storytelling sense, the relatability and reality as well as the modern syntax of these characters’ dialogue make so much more real the history from which they emerge. Even those characters who have fewer words over the 2 hours and 22 minutes—like Philip and Eliza Hamilton—show surprising depth and development.  The social and human struggles that these characters experience–love, loss, legacy, pride and disrespect–are universal and timeless.

For the purposes of plot, Miranda has taken some liberties with the history—as far as I have been able to research, but he is mostly guilty of condensing time between off-screen events and those that happen on the stage. The bones of the story are all fairly accurate.

Even if I can’t speak eloquently or professionally about the music, I want to say how well Miranda uses themes throughout this soundtrack both in identifying characters and identifying moods.  The more I listen to the soundtrack the more I notice the echoes between songs, perhaps most movingly in the 48-second-long “Best of Wives and Best of Women” (2.21), which is a brief exchange between Hamilton and his wife Eliza as he’s leaving bed to prepare for the duel that will end his life.  That song echoes most notably the earlier “It’s Quiet Uptown” (2.18) just after their son’s death but also “Stay Alive” (1.14, 2.17) and “Non-Stop” (1.23), evoking through the similar sequences of notes and repeated phrases the emotions and themes already expressed and established in those songs.

*Citations are first or second CD and then the number of the track. Quotations may not be completely accurate, particularly in their punctuation as I do not have a copy of the book or lyrics, but am transcribing the quotes as I hear them. This caution applies too to the quotes from interviews and videos for which I have no official transcripts, only the video recording.

Hamilton can be listened to in its entirety on Spotify and is also available via iTunes and the CD is available where CDs are sold.

Book Review: Subtle Feminism, Subterfuge, and Romance in Crown Duel

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Spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid names as much as possible, but there are spoilers.

This is going to be a difficult book to review in that I’m not sure if I’ve just finished one book or two or three. This edition includes two novels that were originally published separately (as Crown Duel and Court Duel) and a short story that was published first in this edition. That short story I can set aside as wonderful, fluffy fluff but with perhaps the best use of page formatting and white space that I have seen in a long while. The very bottom of the last page reads (and I’m truncating the sentence to avoid spoilers):

“[…] and kicked the door shut behind us.”

Because the line goes to the very bottom of the page, there’s no indication that this is the end of the story till one turns the page and sees two blank, white, facing pages staring out at the reader like the shut doors, saying “what happens now is not your business.”

Just excellent. Though I’m not sure if that was providence or plan. It would be a difficult thing to plan so well.

Now to the meat of this book:

The first book, the original Crown Duel, begins with a rebellion led by a brother and sister, a count and countess of a small, rural, and isolated province in the greater kingdom of Remalna, ruled by a tyrannical king, self-important and uneasy it seems to me on the throne, leading by threat and fear, imposing brutal taxes on lower classes, and occasionally arranging “accidents” for detractors, family of detractors, and potential detractors. The sister is captured by the general of the opposing army after her brother gives into fear and breaks the war code of conduct. She is humiliated, escapes and is hunted, is captured again, and is rescued, sets out to get vengeance, and has her worldview turned on its head when she discovers that she and her brother have not been alone in plotting the overthrow of the king. Mel wins allies through her righteous intentions, refusal to surrender or to be cowed, and her willingness to learn.

Mel is a sword-wielding heroine deprived for the majority of the book of sword, privilege, or the usual trappings of a hero. Most of the book she spends injured, ill, and on the run. Her true power is in her ability to invoke empathy and sympathy through her personality and through the just nature of her cause.

The second novel sees the rebellion ended, the tyrant dead, her brother a member of the royal court, and Mel being invited into that court as well, where battles are fought for social popularity and against faux pas, games of which she is ignorant, though she is a fairly quick study. There she negotiates social patterns, cliques, and party planning.

Both books pulled some pretty stunning twists.  Smith uses a close first person, and Mel is a poorly informed narrator if not an unreliable one.  She tells her story I think as truly as she can, but she is ignorant of many of the characters feelings and intentions, and some of those characters drive the larger plot of the novel more than does Mel.

In the first novel, Mel claims to be entirely uninterested in the opposite sex—and truth be told, she has little time for such diversions, even when she finds a knight to rescue her. But she doesn’t trust the knight, who has ostensibly opposed and hunted her throughout the novel, and later she believes that he kills her brother. This story does not much read as a romance to me, though Smith makes clear that there is frisson when Mel exchanges glances with one particular character—though the nature of that thrill and recognition remains unclear.

In the second book, Mel still purports to be uninterested, but she arouses the interest of several men at court, including a notorious and popular flirt. She has to evaluate her feelings and her beliefs about love and relationships, and does so while corresponding with a mysterious suitor whose gift-giving she demands become a real relationship—if their only conversations are carried out through written letters.

This whole series reminded me of a fantasy Pride and Prejudice with a backdrop of political uncertainty (not a conscious parallel, Smith says, but she admits that there might have been some influence from Austen). The second novel in particular harkens to the social drama of Austen’s book. Mel’s stubborn dislike based on previous, false conclusions in particular harkens to Elizabeth’s as does her eventual reversal of her conclusions because of a letter and her opposite’s upright actions. Ultimately, this story is a romance, albeit a slow one and one which, as the romance builds, washes the reader in action and subterfuge.

The world was interesting, well-crafted, and beautifully described. The first book in particular has elements of a journey novel as Mel is chased and dragged across the country. I spent some time wishing for a map, which I ultimately found after finishing the novel, but I was able through the text alone to place most of the important places within a larger setting and when I did misunderstand, those misplacements didn’t affect the plot.

Smith carefully crafts a feminist heroine and a feminist story. Mel never pretends to be anything other than female, and she feels no need to adopt traditionally masculine performance to be powerful—even when she’s been most stripped of power and needs a disguise. Moreover, Smith carefully, wonderfully maintains gender balance among her background characters. I particularly noticed the female guardswomen, stable hands, and servants, marked by the feminine pronoun more than anything else. It was a very subtle feminism, and very much appreciated because for being a nonissue it was all the more powerful.

I have long known of this book as having produced a favorite character of two my friends’. His name is Vidanric. I read almost the entirety of the first book looking for this character that I expected to love as well. I need to take a moment to compliment and thank my friends for using Vidanric’s first name exclusively when discussing him. “Only polite,” and I was allowed to make my own assumptions (184).

*****

Smith, Sherwood. Crown Duel. New York: Firebird-Penguin Putnam, 2002.

This review is not endorsed by Sherwood Smith, Firebird Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: We Fought (455 words)

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The ground was still frozen when the war started. Though our men were almost all farmers, our village wasn’t spared the conscription. The army took any man with a strong back or strong arms and any man that they thought that they could make strong with training. Boys who hadn’t seen a fourteenth winter were wrested from the arms of weeping mothers, whisked into a wagon or marched off between soldiers. The army conscripted the strongest animals too, oxen to pull carts and wagons and heavy canons, horses for the officers and those who would be cavalry. They took chickens and hogs and some of what was left of the winter’s wheat.

They left the women. They left behind girls and young boys and gray haired men older than fifty.

They left us behind like chicken bones at the end of a meal.

But chicken bones make broth. We could give up or get working, so when the ground began to thaw, we picked ourselves up and got to the farming, same as every year, except now we had fewer hands to labor, it meant longer hours for us all, and we had to do some of what we hadn’t before.

We grew callused as the ground softened. Hands more used to sewing and mending hardened against ash handles of carts and plows, hoes and spades.

As we trundled water from the stream, we tried not to imagine how distant soil, thawing now like ours and ripe for the sowing, was being watered by blood—an enemy’s, a stranger’s, maybe blood from one of our own. What crop would that nurture?

At night we did by firelight the work that might have been done in daylight when the men were here and our hands were not needed sunup to sundown in the fields.  Around the hearths we quietly added patches to knees worn thin from kneeling in on the ground and darned socks that had been worn to holes by long hours behind the plow or walking lines to scare off crows and rats. With no time to tailor new clothes no one minded except Rose that we could all see half her calves below the skirt’s hem.

We fought our own quiet war against our fear and the coming winter and change.

We fought to keep our gardens ripe and our babies plump.

We fought with hoe and plow and spade and dogged determination.

We spilled sweat and only a little blood.

They say war changes a man.

I hoped our men would recognize their women when they returned to us.

I hoped that they’d respect the war we’d been through while they were away, the wounds and scars and pride that we’d won.

The line this week is mine.

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everyone’s Weird wrote “Wars” (330 words).

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “Waiting for Spring.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Long Weeks” (564 words).

Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers wrote “Frozen Toes.”

Book Review: The Western Tradition and Transgression in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

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The title of Catherynne M. Valente’s first in the Fairyland series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, led me to expect a loud and wonderfully brazen feminism. That was not what I got from the story, but I was perhaps even more pleased. I am only as I’m writing this review realizing how feminist the text truly is.

Valente deals in the subversion of stereotypes male and female most prominently in the characters of September (female) and Saturday (male).

The protagonist, September, has long hair, wears a dress, uses the pronoun “she,” and before she leaves home is assigned the chore of washing dishes (all acts stereotypically assigned to women). She is Ravished, carried off by the Green Wind in the manner of Persephone by Hades, taking their another female role, but deprived of her escort, she must take on the hero’s role in her adventure. She uses the jewels from a scepter to buy her passage on her first quest: to steal back a witch’s Spoon from the Marquess, the despotic ruler of Fairyland. The Spoon she keeps for herself on the subsequent quests. The Spoon belonging to a female witch and through its association with the historically and stereotypically female domain of the kitchen and the act of cooking is feminine but it acts in its function as a weapon in a more masculine sphere. September wields the Spoon like a cudgel to break apart a lobster cage, like a grappling hook with which she wrangles an animate bicycle. Conquering her own Death, she wins a new weapon: a sword that manifests as her mother’s wrench. Her mother is an airplane mechanic while her father is away at the battlefront (of World War II), so September follows in a family tradition of women transgressing the feminine sphere to step into the masculine one in the absence of men.

September’s companion, Saturday, is rescued by September from the Marquess, taking the role of the damsel in the tower in the Western fairytale myth. He is quiet, gentle, pacifist, and emotionally vulnerable rather than exuding stereotypical masculine strength and emotional restraint of the Western myth of masculinity. He takes a backseat to September’s heroism, is rescued far more often than he rescues, and at one point presents September with a favor in the tradition of women to knights before battle.

September moves from a more feminine sphere, being Ravished and wielding a Spoon, to a more traditionally masculine sphere, being compared to a knight on a quest, saving others, being the hero, and wielding a sword-wrench, but all of these things without the world are more feminine. It is the Western tradition that she transgresses and not the world’s gender stereotypes, and that is why this is an important feminist book. What September does, the masculine roles she inhabits are not masculine, not feminine, but non-gendered in the world. This is the feminism of equality, the best and paragon of feminism.

There are several other characters transgressing stereotypes that I could examine.  I could rave about Valente’s answer to body shaming, her call to respect the elderly, the deviances from the man-woman marriage (two women, one man-wairwulf witch, then the Nasnas who are probably a paper in themselves and a reference to Plato besides)….

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the language of this book. The language is beautiful. It is comparable to Patrick Rothfuss’, particularly to Patrick Rothfuss writing in the voice of Auri in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. As Pat with Auri, much of what Valente says as narrator of this book (and she is a very present narrator throughout the text) seems outlandish but rings true nonetheless. This is the truth stripped of its science. This is the truth we saw before science. And it’s beautiful. Its fresh and timeless. It is the language of wonder and young eyes.

*****

Valente, Catherynne M.  Fairyland, Book 1: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.  Illus. Ana Juan.  New York: Square Fish-Macmillan, 2012.  Originally published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Catherynne M. Valente, Ana Juan, Square Fish, Macmillan, or Fiewel and Friends, the Macmillan imprint that originally published the book.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of purchasing an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and purchase it through Bookgrail, a new site that let’s you support book reviewers with your purchases?

Challenge: Legal Theft: My Dad Taught Me (295 words)

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Someday I’m going to start a legal theft piece early in the week.  Someday I’ll remember that I have a post to write and that I shouldn’t let myself be talked into staying past sunset to learn this and learn that on the chance that I’ll have to use it again.  Someday I’m going to learn the days of the week.

Someday.

I hope you don’t mind that this is more… character study than story.

When charging into dangerous situations you can either be fast and silent or fast and prepared. My dad had lots of sayings like that, sayings that you wouldn’t expect to come from the mouth of a fisherman or from a tinker either when it comes to that.

I don’t know what dangerous situations he expected me to land myself in. The most dangerous thing in our village was the lake in a storm, and no skill with a sword or swing of my fist was going to save me if the lake took a mind to drag me under.

Maybe he saw the fighter in me and decided to train me or maybe he put the fighter in me. Either way, I found my causes, even as young as six, they tell me, and I put to use what my dad taught me. I heard an insult slung at another and took personal offense. I don’t think I was ever looking for a fight, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I was looking to practice. Maybe I was looking to prove myself to Dad. After I’d told my tale, he never once told me off for fighting. He’d nod and smile, and I’d know I’d done right.

It gave me purpose, but it wasn’t a purpose everyone saw as fit for anyone—especially me. I heard my mum tell more than one indignant woman that my dad wouldn’t be moved and she didn’t really disapprove either of her daughter knowing how to defend herself or others. They both of them taught me a sense of right and wrong. They made sure I knew I was never to use the skills Dad taught me to terrorize anyone. But maybe they did let me run a little wild.

This first line came from Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad, who wrote “Hindsight.”

It was stolen by Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who used it to write “Foreknowledge” (496 words).

Bek at Building A Door used it to write “The Final Test” (393 words).

Welcome to legal theft Trebez from Machete Diplomacy, who used the line to write “Silence and Preparation”!

Book Reviews: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Twists Tales and Truly Enchants

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I’ve already reviewed Dealing with Dragons (*****), the first book in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, for this site, and I think that review pretty thoroughly covered the wonderful feminism to be found in Cimorene’s and Kazul’s stories and more subtly in other characters’ within the Forest.

I am such a fan of these books, and after rereading that first and seeing that the love remained, I hurried out to buy for myself the entirety of the series, which I found collected into one volume by SFBC Fantasy.

I just finished rereading the rest of the series, one book after another, first Searching for Dragons, then Calling on Dragons, and last Talking to Dragons.

I did not realize till I’d nearly finished Talking to Dragons (**1/2) that though this is the last chronologically, it is actually the first of the books published by Wrede. This blows me away still because it proves what an enormous and twisted backstory Wrede had planned to get this one story finished—even if I think it would have felt somewhat poorly integrated into the text if I’d read Talking to Dragons first.

This last book is probably the least impressive to me—and so in that sense, I’m not surprised to learn that it was the first. It is the only book of the series written in the first person. Why for me first person has become such a taboo, I cannot say, but I am only just beginning to overcome my personal misgivings about the style. Sixteen-year-old Daystar narrates. One Goodreads reviewer managed to capture I think what bothers me about Daystar: Daystar lacks emotion and reaction. First person is best used to explore a character’s inmost emotions and reactions especially in characters who cannot or will not openly express themselves. It can also be used to write in a unique voice as Rick Riordan does with Percy Jackson. Daystar doesn’t have a particular interesting or amusing voice. He’s not anguished or surprised or overwhelmed by his task or by the enchanted of the Forest. The only reason for Daystar to narrate is to keep the reader as much in the dark as is Daystar. I can’t say there’s a better narrator than Daystar, just that I wish that Daystar was a better narrator.

Shiara, the fire-witch with whom Daystar partners because neither of them has a direction so they may as well wander directionlessly together, is not the flying-in-the-face-of-stereotypes heroine that wins me in the other books of the series. In fact, she is a stereotyped redhead, fiery in ever sense, easily upset—touchy I supposed you’d say—prone to yell and complain and be angry at the world and herself. So, all in all, the fourth book is a disappointment—unless you consider it the first book and marvel at how much planning Wrede has done to write this book.

Rewinding back now to the second book, Searching for Dragons (****): This book focuses on Mendenbar, the insular king of the Enchanted Forest, who would happily spend all his days alone in his kingdom. On a walk through the Forest, he discovers spots of dead earth that possess none of the Forest’s magic. There’s evidence that the damage may have been caused by dragons, but he is advised to visit Morwen for advice about dragons before acting, and then by Morwen to visit Kazul. Mendenbar finds Cimorene instead of Kazul at the cave, however, and she is just setting off on a solo quest to find the missing King of Dragons. Gallant hero that he is, Mendenbar cannot let Cimorene quest alone, especially when they are seeking the same person, and so the two set off together. They encounter a number of helper characters whom Cimorene and Mendenbar help in turn and who help to expand Wrede’s world beyond the dragons’ caves. The magician, Telemain, becomes a recurring character.

This book better explains the nature of magic—specifically the magic of the Enchanted Forest, wizards’ magic, and to a lesser extent magician’s magic—which is all types of learned magic.   Telemain explains magic and spellwork scientifically. Most of the other characters—notably Cimorene—can’t understand his heavily jargoned explanations, which have to be simplified by other characters. Kazul glares at him and threatens to eat him if he can’t talk sense. Kazul and Cimorene here sympathize with the child readers, but Telemain allows Wrede to speak to her adult audience as well. I appreciate these explanations as an adult, and as someone struggling to explain my own magic, I am doubly wowed by Wrede’s scientific understanding of her magic.

Importantly, though the book is told primarily from Mendenbar’s point of view, Cimorene is not discounted nor reduced to the subservient role. There are skills that Cimorene possesses that Mendenbar does not that make her invaluable—not her prowess in the kitchen or for housework but sensitivity to magic, knowledge about wizards, and a method of attack.

The escalating animosity between the wizards and the dragons climaxes to open battle in Calling on Dragons (****). The wizards capture the sword that helps Mendenbar control the magic of the Enchanted Forest and helps him keep the wizards out of it. Cimorene must go with Morwen, Telemain, Kazul, an enchanted rabbit named Killer, and several of Morwen’s cats to recapture it. This follows the same adventure story pattern as Searching for Dragons: Helper characters, small battles and small victories, and ultimately victory over the wizards—well, sort of. This book necessitates the fourth, Talking to Dragons, because it ends with the battle a bit unresolved.

Within this group, the women shine particularly. Killer is more often a nuisance than he is helpful—or is helpful only by stumbling across enchantments before the others do—and Telemain becomes incapacitated by overextending his help so that Morwen must save him, reversing the typical hero’s tale where the hero rescues a maiden.

This story comes to us primarily from the voice of Morwen, so the obstacles and solutions are particularly suited to her. Wrede proves herself an astute student of cats when she gives voice to Morwen’s.

I wonder about the climate in which this book was written (I am too young to have been at all aware and too lazy at the moment to do the research) because there is a great deal of blatant retort to those who might call for traditional works of fantasy here in the character of Arona Michelear Grinogian Vamist. It almost feels as if this book has been written in direct response to detractors of Wrede’s gender stereotype defying characters in other books. Wrede continues to play with the traditional, not only the hero tale and gender roles but several characters of other tales: Farmer MacDonald, Rapunzel, and a male fire-witch, proving that in Wrede’s world “witch” is not gendered anymore than is King or Queen in the dragons’.

Overall, I am a huge fan of this series. I find them well-written books and important counter-examples to the still all too prevalent damsel-in-distress princess tales told to children. Wrede’s women are for the most part very strong feminist characters, but none of them completely renounces their femininity, and in that I find them stronger, better role models for young girls. Wrede is conscious of the genre and conscious of the culture and aware of what is valuable and what could be improved or pruned from both.

I openly admire this series.

*****

Wrede, Patricia C. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. New York: SFBC, 2005.

Talking to Dragons first published 1985.

Dealing with Dragons first published 1990.

Searching for Dragons first published 1991.

Calling on Dragons first published 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Patricia C. Wrede; the original publishers: Jane Yolen, Jane Yolen Books, Harcourt Brace & Company; or The Science Fiction Book Club, SFBC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.