Currently Reading: Spindle's End

Spindle's EndCats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic—which was what all magic was—it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on your knee and purr. Magic never sat on anybody’s knee and purred. Cats were the easiest of the beasts for humans to talk to, if you could call it talking, and most fairies could carry on some kind of colloquy with a cat. But conversations with cats were always more or less riddle games, and if you were getting the answer too quickly, the cat merely changed the ground on you. Katriona’s theory was that cats were one of the few members of the animal kingdom who had a strong artistic sense, and that aggravated chaos was the chief feline art form, but she had never coaxed a straight answer out of a cat to be sure. It was the sort of thing a cat would like a human to think, particularly if it weren’t true.

(I could have picked ever so many quotes from this book, but could not resist this one. I laughed over it for at least a minute straight.)

Author: Robin McKinley

Synopsis: In this spin on the Sleeping Beauty tale, princess Rosie receives a curse on her name-day: by her twenty-first birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a sleep from which no one can rouse her. In hopes of saving her, a small-town fairy kidnaps her and raises her to a commoner's life and everyday magic. But as Rosie grows up rough and outdoorsy and not at all fond of handcrafts like spinning, the fairy who cursed her keeps searching for a way to kill her sooner rather than later, and the clock keeps ticking.

Notes: Already impressive for her ability to achieve a variety of moods and styles—her opus ranges from the mythic, ethereal Beauty to the serious, detailed The Hero and The Crown—McKinley further proved her authorial flexibility with Spindle’s End, which is flat-out hilarious. This novel struck me as a four-hundred-page cousin to Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, what with fairy godmothers giving awkward gifts and magic being a quirky, ever-present part of daily life. I was also pleasantly put in mind of Diana Wynne Jones, though if anything, McKinley’s world and characters felt more vivid and emotional to me than that of Howl’s Moving Castle or The Dark Lord of Derkholm.

Told in five parts with third-person omniscient narrative voice and two protagonists, Spindle’s End reworks the short, not-very-action-packed Sleeping Beauty fairy tale into a lively triple romance with heroism and coming of age and girl power on every front. And fairies, of course. It took a wildly different tack from the last Sleeping Beauty retelling I read—Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose—but here I’ll leave off making comparisons to other books, except to say that every time McKinley used the phrase ‘briar rose’, it made me think of the Holocaust, thanks to Yolen, which was disconcerting.

The book threatened to trespass on dangerous territory in a variety of places but never quite committed the offense. Priests and religion were made fun of a couple of times, but then, so was academia, to my thorough amusement. I don’t care for pointed subversions of feminine love for beauty, but Rosie won me over—much more on that later—and Peony was such a good character that the balance was struck. As for matters of plain taste, the story would have risked boring me in the long run had it been just a comedy, but it contained drama and human feeling enough to save it from that dark fate.

Most of the comedy was centered in the worldbuilding, generally told through extensive asides to the reader, often in parenthetical phrases and sentences long enough to rival St. Paul's—a tactic which would not have been advisable in a novel less devoted to being funny. It worked splendidly in this case, according to my own sense of humor, at least, which was roused to numerous snorts and smirks and giggles and the occasional burst of laughter. It succeeded, however, not just as humor but as worldbuilding; the Gig and the dja vines, Woodwold and the smithy and their surroundings all popped up as tangible, dimensional settings. If asked again which fictional worlds I’d like to visit, the Gig would make the top five with Hogwarts and Narnia and Silverydew.

It takes a good character to sell me on a novel, however, and Spindle’s End had several: Katriona and her aunt, Barder and Narl, Throstle and Fast and the merrel, the queen, Peony, and of course Rosie. Brave Katriona—protagonist number one—got my devotion from the outset; headstrong Rosie earned mine as she grew up.

Rosie probably merits extensive discussion as a type of anti-heroine, not because she’s not good, but because she’s not especially feminine in the usual dramatic style. McKinley enjoys playing this trope in various forms, with dragon-fighting Aerin-sol being another obvious example, but Rosie, with her trousers and her grunts, her short hair and her height, her hatred for embroidery and her love for horse-doctoring, is furiously set against all things girly-girl.

What I appreciate about McKinley’s characterizations, however—a fact of empathy that too many writers fail to include—is that even the tough, boyish heroines are allowed human vulnerability, and therefore they come off as womanly in their own ways. As a fellow tall girl with a fondness for jeans and horses and an unfortunate distaste for handicrafts, I sympathized with Rosie on numerous counts. And her deep love for her adoptive family and friends ultimately brought out a softness in her that suited her strength and kept her from destroying her own femininity.

Much of the book worked on similar empathetic principles. Rosie’s romance was odd and comical but emotional and satisfying. The twists on the ending were fascinating and touching despite making me want to roll my eyes once or twice. There was one aspect of the wrap-up that came off bittersweet, but a firm hope accompanied it, so it didn’t put me off the full-fledged glow at the ending.

The only thing I didn’t care much for was the castle showdown against Pernicia, which was packed with hard-to-visualize weirdnesses reminiscent of Aerin’s mage-battle in The Hero and the Crown. It felt like a scene from a different book and by a different writer, and its primary importance seemed to be that it allowed all the animals to take part. It took up so little of a very long, very satisfying story, however, that it didn’t trouble me much.

In the end, I was grateful for all four hundred of this book’s pages. The length gave me a lot of time to live in the Gig, to get to know Aunt and Katriona, and to become the solid, energetic, animal-loving country girl who contained strong hints of my own teenage self. I miss that girl. I have a feeling I’ll return for more time with her.


Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I'd Put on My Auto-Buy List

There being a great number of authors in the world, and there being an unfortunate number of limits on reading time in any single life, the idea of an auto-buy list strikes me as a bit overwhelming. There probably aren't ten living authors I'd dare promise to read everything they write, especially if they're prolific. Which raises the question: Can we include authors who have died?

I'm going to say yes, just to make my life easier.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Unfortunately, my three favorite authors—G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Orson Scott Card—have all got loads of books I've yet to read. It seems disingenuous to pledge to buy everything they write when I've not made it through half their respective oeuvres. (But I do have two of Card's Bean books on deck, waiting only till I've re-read Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet. So, there's that.)

And then there's J.K. Rowling. Crazy as I am about Harry Potter, I've not read The Casual Vacancy. Nor do I think I'm likely to.

Here, however, are a few authors whose work I've read all (or nearly all) of and liked well enough to at least seriously consider anything they wrote in future.

1. Jane Austen. Absolutely. I'd just go wild for another of her sweet romances set amid intimate social comedies.

2. Shannon Hale. I've not read her Midnight in Austenland or the graphic novels. Yet. But I think I've read everything else, and I'm ever hoping for more of her bright, humorous storytelling and textured worlds.

3. Stephenie Meyer. Though I'm afraid of sequels to the fantastic The Host, which ended in a very good place. Her outstanding concepts and emotionally resonant characters really get at me; I'm never through with a Meyer book till I've read it five times.

4. Ally Condie, though she has some earlier works I've not read. Anyone who can make me love a dystopian series has got something worth searching out. The quiet mood of her prose and her Cassia's artistic, contemplative nature sold me on the Matched series and interested me in anything else she has to say.

5. L.M. Montgomery. I've still got a couple of her lesser-known novels to track down, but who wouldn't take more of the creator who wrote Anne, Emily, Pat, and Valancy? Not to mention Gilbert, Teddy, Jingle, and Barney? I'd love to hear more from her Prince Edward Island world.

6. Laura Ingalls Wilder. I adored all her prairie tales as a kid. More Ingalls family stories would just make my year.

...and now I'm running out of ideas. There are so few people of whom I can truthfully say I've read anywhere near all their work. It's not true of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky; it's not true of Cornelia Funke or Elizabeth Goudge. It's not true of George MacDonald or Rick Riordan or Evelyn Waugh or Frances Hodgson Burnett. Until it is, I think I'm stuck with a short list.

Who would you put on your own auto-buy list?


Pronunciation, Stamps, and Litanies

Another from Problems of a Book Nerd:

Word. Or rather, so many words. Like 'thoroughly' and 'characteristics' from my childhood years (I had, as Mike Myers' character said in View from the Top, the emphasis on the wrong syllable.). I had to look up 'timbre' (tam-bur, apparently) just the other day, which is odd, considering that I took voice lessons for years. And 'hubris' has baffled me for years, so I just looked it up now. Hyoo-briss. Weird.

Also, Jane Austen stamps from the Royal Mail. American mail, you should be so awesome.

This week's writers' link comes from Terpsichore over at Egotist's Club: a litany for writers. Here are a few lines which spoke to me most powerfully, and which I ought to pray regularly:

From tepidity of convictions and weakness of thought, reason, and diction,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From vacuity of substance and fatuous compositions,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From misuse of our time and distractions in our research; from antipathy for labor and the soul-weight of sloth,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From needless verbiage which obscures truth and sense,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From incorrect data, false testimony, skewed perspectives, incomplete citations, and misleading rhetoric,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From disorganized ideas; from overused tropes and clichéd plots; from plot holes and inconsistencies,
Good Lord, deliver us.

I think I need to print this out and stick it in the back of my breviary. Or hang it on the wall here in my writing corner.


Last Year's Pumpkins and other stories

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This past week, we finally cut up the big pumpkin from last year's garden.

As expected, it made loads of cubes and puree—far more than I had freezer space for, so I made a double batch of this pumpkin soup recipe. Which turned out to be awesome, especially with whole wheat bread straight from the bread maker. Masha and Christie, it's relatively easy to adapt for Lenten purposes. :)

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Music of the week: piano music to write to. I listen to a fair amount of this kind of thing nowadays; it kills competitive mental monologues for the most part, yet manages not to distract me on its own.

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I'm off to rescue a princess. And to warm up dinner; there's still some pumpkin soup left.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Once was Lost (recently retitled 'What We Lost')

Once Was Lost“I’ve been a little busy, sweetheart.”

I want to say: I know, but it’s Mom. She’s your wife. You’ve got time to sit around the church office joking with Erin.

But how can I complain? Jody’s parents don’t even know if their daughter is alive. At least we know where Mom is. I get up for water. When I press my glass against the ice maker in the fridge door, a grinding sound comes from inside the freezer, followed by a loud clunk, before the whole thing kind of shudders and goes dead. Half a cube of ice drops into my glass. I stare at it, feeling the tears building.

Why does everything have to be broken right now? I think of Job, in the Old Testament, who lost everything. He didn’t just lose everything, God took everything away from him—his wife, his kids, everything he owned. Despite it all, Job kept on believing that God knew what he was doing. Well, I don’t. I hit the fridge door with my open hand, hard, and it’s all I can do not to smash my glass onto the floor.

“Sam, easy,” Dad says.

I turn around. I want him to give me answers, but I can’t even ask the questions. And he just looks at me like I’m the one with issues.

Author: Sara Zarr

Notes: Of late, I find myself hungry for fiction that deals with religion in human, intimate, sympathetic ways. Not Christian bookstore fodder with flat characters and proper conversions; not l'esprit-du-temps mockery that portrays religion as a device for control and the religious as backward, ignorant, arrogant bigots; but the real thing as experienced by honest-to-goodness religious people. A great yearning, a desperate search, at times an otherworldly comfort and inexplicable love. A collection of people fighting for and against each other, doubting, trusting, giving, taking, cursing, blessing, despairing, and hoping beyond hope, calling on a God who alternately seems less real than fairies and more real than walls and floors and science experiments.

The ability to portray this is why I loved Brideshead Revisited; it’s much of why I love Orson Scott Card. George MacDonald does it well. It’s something I’ve felt traces of in Shannon Hale’s work, and even in The Wheel of Time on occasion. The hope of that is what made me pick up Sara Zarr’s Once was Lost—now retitled What We Lost, though I rather prefer the former with its reference to the hymn "Amazing Grace".

Inspired by the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, Once was Lost tells the story of a teenage pastor’s daughter whose faith and family have already begun coming apart when a thirteen-year-old girl from the youth group disappears. Samara “Sam” Taylor has it rougher than the average pastor's kid; her mom just went into rehab for alcoholism, and her dad is spending a little too much time chatting up the pretty youth leader instead of making sure his daughter is surviving her mom’s absence. Then Jody Shaw disappears, and Pastor Charlie throws himself into being there for the Shaw family—easier for him, in the moment, than taking care of his own. Crises of faith are a relatively normal part of growing up religious; when Sam’s hits, neither of her parents are around to talk her through it.

The story is well written, ambient and intimate, stylistically and thematically reminiscent of Sarah Dessen or (a mild PG-rated version of) John Green. Sam narrates in first person and present tense, offering her doubts and frustrations and ideas as she experiences them. Though she is forced to confront issues like child abduction and serious family dysfunction, her voice—due to her innocence—keeps things comparatively light. Not cheerful, but bearable. The relationships carry the story arc, and together they move at a quiet, late-summer pace toward resolution.

There’s a light romance, some working through the challenges of friendship, small town dynamics, a little mystery and suspense, forgiveness, anger at God and yearning toward him. Taking all of that in, it’s one of the more easygoing, gentle reads I’ve come across lately, something I could pick up and enjoy, put down and think over.

Possibly it’s an overreaction, but my general experience of reading about a crisis of faith is to fear the end of the story—fear it will turn into an atheist’s conversion tale or even the aforementioned mockery. To my relief, the end of Sam’s story is touched with grace. It’s a tempered thing; not proselytic, but believable and hopeful. Zarr displays a tender, optimistic empathy throughout the last chapters, something I appreciated and felt very much in tune with. It left me confident that Sam and her friends, whom I’d learned to love, would be okay—and that I might rather enjoy tracking down another Sara Zarr novel.


Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Characters in MG/YA High Fantasy

...because I love it, and because there should be much more of it in the world.

By middle grade and young adult, I'm ruling out The Lord of the Rings, even though it's sometimes shelved in with the kidlit. I love Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Galadriel, Eowyn, and the Legolas/Gimli friendship, if you're wondering.

By high fantasy, I'm ruling out anything in which a modern-day London or New York (etc.) is referenced, which includes Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. If you've ever spent ten minutes on this blog, you may know I adore pretty much everyone in HP but the villains—heck, I even have a soft spot for the Malfoys by the end. As for Percy, I love him and Annabeth and Tyson and Clarice and... pretty much everyone but Kronos and the monsters. I even loved Luke. So, yeah.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

My own arbitrary additional rules: limit one entry per book and two per author, which should keep Shannon Hale's characters from dominating the list. Peder, Enna, Finn, Rin, Razo, Britta, Dashti and Tegus, don't go feeling unloved.

1. Miri Larendaughter (Princess Academy and Palace of Stone, Shannon Hale). Perky, quick-witted, generous, brave, and tenderhearted, Miri is an honest-to-goodness heroine. Hard not to love.

2. Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee (The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale). Shy and self-deprecating but gracious and persevering, Ani-called-Isi has an inner strength that is everything I want to be. Also, it's a lot of fun to write out her full name.

3. Rosie (Spindle's End, Robin McKinley). I'll spare you her full name. Her boyish, trouser-wearing, animal-loving, handicraft-hating personality brought my own teenage self back to me with a vengeance. Props to McKinley for allowing her to be feminine and vulnerable despite her toughness and masculine mannerisms. Review of the book coming soon.

4. Eilonwy or Fflewddur Fflam (The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander). I couldn't pick. Eilonwy is bossy and loyal and interesting; Fflewddur is hilarious. Honorable mention to Fflewddur's harp.

5. Prince Char (Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine). I thoroughly enjoyed Ella, but I loved Char. He's good-natured and tenderhearted and not too confident, and has a very responsive sense of humor and play. Rather a darling young man.

6. Castle Glower (Tuesdays at the Castle, Jessica Day George). I'm also rather fond of Celie. The castle, however, had so much personality in its own right that it deserves the mention here. There's a lot of forceful love and humor packed into that magical work of architecture.

7. Sophie Hatter (Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones). I'm bending my rules with this mention, since Sophie does get a brief excursion to England, but since her world exists on its own without reference to ours, I'll give it a pass. As a fellow eldest child, I sympathized with Sophie, and I very much admired her ability to grit through being cursed and having to put up with Howl.

8. Adele and Eleda (The Truth Teller's Tale, Sharon Shinn). They're not so easily separated. I had more natural sympathy for quiet Adele, but I loved Eleda's honesty.

9. Jena and her frog (Wildwood Dancing, Juliet Marillier). This is set in Romania, so it's another rulebender, but it doesn't really touch the modern Western world. I'm not sure which I liked more—Jena's devoted bravery, or the frog's devoted loyalty. Their friendship was best of all.

10. Loveday Minette (The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge). This one touches London of yesteryear, so it's also borderline. Also, I might love Maria best and Robin after, and Old Parson is wonderful, as is Wrolf—but I've chosen Loveday because, besides her having a sweet name, she's motherly and womanly and repentant of her past wrongs. She's a lot of the reason that Maria and Robin have the goodness and resources to right the wrongs of Maria's ancestor.

Which are your favorites from middle grade and young adult high fantasy?


Artist and Aesthete

At long last, someone has put time management instruction in terms I can bear contemplating: the secret is to become a Jedi and rescue a princess.

Secondly, if you're at all into gardening, I recommend reading my friend Jana's post "The Secret Garden," wherein she describes this season (in western Washington, at least) briefly and beautifully. And, by referencing Mary Lennox, also in familiar and beloved terms.

Deposition of Christ, Fra Angelico
Thirdly, today is the memorial of Blessed Fra Angelico, patron of artists. And on that note, Masha recently put up a discussion post on the artist's relationship to physical beauty. I spent some time this morning trying to create a full-length essay in response, but I have a couple of princesses to rescue, and anyway it turns out I wasn't saying much. Simple must the answer be, then. From Masha:
Artists tend to obsess over physical beauty. They live in one extreme or the other, setting up physical perfection as a tiny god or rejecting it utterly and filling their lives with ‘meaningful ugliness’ - pushing out the beauty in search of relevance. I lean toward the former.... I do have to work hard to avoid making physical beauty an idol - reminding myself that so many of the Saints were not beautiful people in the physical sense, and some were unpleasant people to be around as well.
The saints seem to preach moderation in all enjoyments—which means that when it comes to beauty, I feel like a decadent, if (hopefully) an innocent one. I don't often hesitate to linger five minutes longer than I should at the piano, feeling my way through a Chopin prelude—or to stand in a parking lot with cold groceries in a warm car, just watching the sunset—or to re-read the splendid last page of a good book again and again and again. I'd stare at people in public without hesitation, making a memory of her eyes or his smile or her juxtaposition of scarlet lipstick and black scarf or his curly-topped toddler features, if it wasn't rude. Despite my chronic scrupulosity, the aesthetic pleasures are one arena in which I have utter, blissful, Edenic freedom.

It is true that under certain circumstances I have to guard against the capital sins, of which vanity at my own fair image in the mirror on a good hair day is far from being the least of the temptations, height and flat chest and dysfunctional sense of style notwithstanding. But overall, it seems to me that moderating my admiration for the beauty of the earth would not mean changing how much of it I took in, but the way I look at it—and not for the better.

Because there's beauty everywhere. I told myself I would learn to love the rain, and in stating so, found the work half done. There's beauty in the soft gray of clouds and the ambiance of wet twilight, in green sprouts pushing up through mud in the garden and in wet hair sticking to flushed faces. There's beauty everywhere in people, too. As Masha says, it's not only in the "young and whole" but "in weathered skin, gnarled hands, and the nobility that well-worn age brings to the body. There is beauty in Rubenesque women and in the darkness long sorrow leaves on the face." I have been thinking so much of this lately, feeling as if I see beauty in every face that I open my eyes long enough to notice.

Lent, in its fasting and prayer and sacrificial giving, is a living recollection of Christ's forty days in the desert—but I've always found beauty in the desert, too. Phoenix and Albuquerque are breathtaking places, all reds and browns and oranges and blues, all particularly striking to a waterlogged Pacific Northwester who drowns every day in grays and greens.

Masha is unlikely to disagree with this, unless she's read something I haven't—but I've yet to read saint or Scripture writer who suggested to me that I ought to take less delight in the arrangements of bare branches around the altar, the dark Phrygian melody of the Pange Lingua, or the picturesque simplicity of broth and bread. As for Easter lilies and Easter tables and full choir with organ and brass quartet on the grand Alleluias, they can wait. Their bright and magnificent loveliness will be all the more striking for the time of being content with humbler beauties.


Accio Moxie and other stories

This is my thousand-and-first published post on this blog. And here we are, just a few days shy of A Light Inside's seventh birthday.

Happy milestones, little blog. I love you dearly.

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This week, I've had—as I recall—my first cold of the season. I got off easy: my primary symptoms were a few days of inability to drag myself off the couch, a headache whenever I stood up, a scratchy throat whenever I started talking, and acute perfectionism mingled with a beastly lack of focus whenever I tried to write. Everyone else around here talks about having three straight weeks of significant malaise.

(The [theoretical] secret: elderberries. Yeah, I know, your mother was a hamster, etc. I'm not kidding. Elderberry brandy taken by the teaspoon every two hours the moment you begin to imagine you might be getting sick... let's just say it's well worth the try.)

My own biggest problem with getting sick was missing Ash Wednesday Mass. I love Ash Wednesday Mass. It was hard to make Lent feel like it had officially begun without the black cross-smear on my forehead, especially since I was sick enough to not be hungry, which felt like cheating.

Also, I missed my dog, who died about six and a half years ago. She used to cuddle down in the crook of my arm when I was sick. Maia, not so much.

Me: "Maia, please stop walking up and down me. I feel lousy enough."
Maia: "I'm just looking for someplace to sleep."
Me: "Stop looking. One trip back and forth should be sufficient."
Maia: "Your knees aren't pulled up into a respectable sleeping nook."
Me: "You know, my dog used to cuddle in the crook of my arm. For hours."
Maia: "Did you have a point with that statement?"
Me, sighing: "I guess not. Just pick somewhere and lie down."

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The YA Book Queen has a list of the top seven comments she's received from non-YA-reading adults. It would seem that either people are bigger jerks where she lives, or I don't spend enough time in public with my copy of The Goose Girl.

Anyhow, all I've got to say is: Go ahead, random stranger. Make a snide comment about how I "must love Twilight." I'll summon up all my moxie—in my imagination, I have moxie to summon—and say, "I do, actually. Meyer did some fascinating things with literary alchemy and tie-ins to nineteenth-century classics. And I loved her thoughtful portrayal of loss and grief in New Moon."

It would be fun to see if the random stranger had a response to that.

Dear The Internet, please stop using Twilight as a symbol of trashy literature. No, it's not The Great Gatsby. It wasn't trying to be. It's also not nearly as bad as people make it out to be; no, not on any level. Thanks.

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Music of the week: Beethoven. I don't link enough of my favorite composer, probably because most of his pieces are longer than the ten minutes I try to keep these linked videos to. But here's the beautiful second movement to his seventh symphony.

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Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Little Prince

The Little Prince“Isn’t it true that sheep eat bushes?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Ah! I’m glad.”

I didn’t understand why it was so important that the sheep should eat bushes. But the little prince added:

“And therefore they eat baobabs, too?”

I pointed out to the little prince that baobabs are not bushes but trees as tall as churches, and that even if he took a whole herd of elephants back to his planet, that herd couldn’t finish off a single baobab.

The idea of the herd of elephants made the little prince laugh.

“We’d have to pile them on top of one another.”

But he observed perceptively:

“Before they grow big, baobabs start out by being little.”

“True enough! But why do you want your sheep to eat little baobabs?”

He answered, “Oh, come on! You know!” as if we were talking about something quite obvious. And I was forced to make a great mental effort to understand this problem all by myself.

Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupery

From Goodreads: Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

Notes: Somehow I missed this classic when I was little. Whereas many a children’s tale reads differently in adulthood, though, this one made a little girl of me again for the reading; I might as well have been five, poring through the text and comparing the pictures to the words as I did with Billy and Blaze.

When I got to the end, and the author told me that I loved the little prince just as he did, I assented wholly—not as the thirty-five-year-old woman who would have wanted to sweep a child like that up into her arms and mother him, but as the prince’s equal in age and height and emotion: someone who would have sat beside him in the sand and talked about sheep and baobab trees with unquestioned confidence and sympathy.

The only grown-up part left me after the read, in retrospect—and it’s only half grown-up—is the part that desperately wants to know what to do with the heartbreaking loveliness of the tale. I couldn’t quite solve the ending; it left me breathless and sad and unsettled, hopeful and afraid.

Looking back, I see a thousand little things—places where the story reflects Christ-imagery as clearly as a stained-glass window, thoughtful moments depicting what it means to love and find meaning. But it’s all tied up with the part of me that wants to know what happened, wants to know it in terms that my mind, still so dependent on science despite all my devotion to imagination and fairy tales, can comprehend.

De Saint-Exupery says something similar of himself once: “...here you’ll have to forgive me. My friend never explained anything. Perhaps he thought I was like himself. But I, unfortunately, cannot see a sheep through the sides of a crate. I may be a little like the grown-ups. I must have become old.”

The author, who vanished with his airplane just two years after writing this book, bequeathed his readers a value for childlike understanding along with his love for his planet-hopping friend. The book is full of innocent, single-sentence philosophies that would seem aphoristic if they weren’t all of them bigger in meaning than in words. Like Lewis, de Saint-Exupery writes to children as equals; like Hodgson Burnett, he writes to them as intimates; like Carroll, he unchains his imagination for them. The result is that the adult reader must sit down in the sand and listen as a child—and from that perspective the whole world seems, for a time at least, infinitely clearer and more beautiful.

In the end, it’s no harder to understand why the book is a classic than it is to understand why it makes you cry.


Top Ten Tuesday: Romances Again

There's only one problem with this excellent topic: I've listed my picks before. And they haven't really changed. Amy and Laurie? Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth? Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester? Does it get better?

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Probably not. I could, however, go on listing for a very long time. Twenty. Fifty. A hundred. For today, we'll stick with twenty.

11. Kitty and Levin from Lev Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. That scene where they're talking to each other in first letters is just. So. Cute.

12. Ian and Wanderer from Stephenie Meyer's The Host. A particularly sweet and engaging love story, with a fair amount of depth to it and too many adorable moments to choose from.

13. Percy and Annabeth from Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. I never would have thought a couple in a humorous middle grade boy story could be so compelling.

14. Barney and Valancy from L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle. I'm always faintly creeped out by the images of Ryan Gosling with "Hey, girl" stamped across them—maybe because I don't know the context—but Barney's "Oh, girl..." gets at my heart every time.

15. Perrin and Faile from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time. While Mat and Tuon form a more unique and interesting pairing, and I grew to sympathize with the Rand/Min passion (if not their morals), the love between Perrin and Faile was especially satisfying.

16. Harry and Ginny from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. They could laugh together. I was pulling for them from book two.

17. Ron and Hermione from the same. Her mercury and his sulphur were an explosive combination. I was pulling for them from the middle of book one. :)

18. Sophie and Howl from Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle. In the book—I've yet to see the Miyazaki adaptation—this is actually not a particularly sweet romance. It is, however, adorable.

19. Ella and Char from Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted. They slid down banisters together and wrote the cutest letters to each other. I just loved them.

20. Shasta/Cor and Aravis from C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy. Fighting all the time may not be the best way to fall in love in real life, but it makes great fiction. It's mostly foreshadowed, as they're children in the story, but the beginner's chemistry is all there.

Honorable mention to Pat and Jingle from L.M. Montgomery's Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat; they would certainly have made this list had Pat not taken so desperately long to get her heart around the truth.

Who else should we name?


Benedict XVI and the Invitation to Love

The fact that I've dreaded the end of Benedict XVI's time in St. Peter's see will not make sense to all of you, I suppose, and no, I don't blame you. Lived experience depends too much on perspective. If you're not Catholic—judging by my own past experience—the pope is an awkward blend of megachurch pastor and foreign statesman, irrelevant if you don't pay attention to him and likely problematic if you do, and all of that's made worse by the colossal ineptitude of the news media in reporting him. I don't think they mean harm, half the time; it's just that they make the sort of bumbles that happen when people try to pass themselves off as part of an unfamiliar culture. And when they do mean harm, often out of a Skeeteresque penchant for spinning headlines to be interesting rather than truthful, they manage it.

Benedict XVI at a Wednesday audience in Rome, November 2009.
Lou took the picture. I stood on my chair and grinned and waved.

Anyway, the pope resigned today due to age and failing health, and the white smoke should rise again before Easter. And I, honestly, am grieved over it. He's been a good father: firm and reliable and generous, intellectual and wise, careful and thoughtful in his relations to both church and world. And holy. Everything I ever heard him to say, everything I knew of him—not his handlers at the Vatican, but him personally—doing, aimed at an increase of faith, hope and charity, at pressing close enough to touch the hem of Christ's robe.

And that's what mattered these eight years, to his spiritual children at least. The see of Peter, like everything else about Catholicism, is a work too great for one man. Trying to keep a manifestly varied horde of fighting, straying, searching people on track to find God through Christ would be impossible for a hundred, or a thousand. Benedict XVI buckled down to the work almost against his will; he would have preferred, I hear, to retire and write; but he took up the pallium with humility and steeled himself to drive the thundering chariot of Chesterton's vision, struggling to hold "the wild truth reeling but erect."

He made serious effort toward the reunion of all Christians, which endeared him quickly to me. Again, a work too great for one man; despite five hundred years of Protestantism and a thousand years of East-West schism, the wounds of division are on both sides still sickening and bloody—as I well know, having un-taped a long what's-wrong-with-the-Catholic-Church letter from my own door with shaking fingers. But entire Anglican congregations have reconciled with Rome under his watch. It's a start.

He wrote. This, too, made me love him. I find his heady, theological style difficult to read, and have never even made it through one of his encyclicals, let alone the books. But when I've read sections thereof, the thick phrases contain straightforward, innocent and loving truths.

More than anything else, he invited all of us to know and love God. From his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:
Faith, hope and charity go together. Hope is practised through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which accepts God's mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness. Faith tells us that God has given his Son for our sakes and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love! It thus transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the world in his hands and that, as the dramatic imagery of the end of the Book of Revelation points out, in spite of all darkness he ultimately triumphs in glory. Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, gives rise to love. Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practise it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world—this is the invitation I would like to extend...
The invitation stands, and God help me take him up on it. As for Benedict himself, he closed the announcement of his resignation with the words "With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer."

I'll miss his quiet, fatherly leadership. But I'm ever grateful for his prayers.


The Advent of Daffodils and other stories

Spring is coming!

First daffodil...

grape hyacinths...

stars of Bethlehem...

leaf buds on the white lilac...

and the clematis, which didn't wait to be pruned.
Spring spring spring spring spring spring spring SPRING. Of course, this also means that the wild buttercups and dandelions are coming up in my garden, along with grass. And I was hoping I'd get more book written during the winter than I have thus far. But still—spring! Tarry not, but come quickly!

* * *

Maia on laundry day:

*white load*
Maia: "WARM LAUNDRY! My favorite!"
Me: "Get out of there, beast. As much cat litter as you spread around the house, I really don't want you in the clean dishtowels."
Maia: "Make me."
Me: "Oh, we're going to play that game? I'll shut you out of the room."
Maia: "Nanny nanny boo boo! I can open the door!!"
Me: "Fine. Make me fight this doorknob."
Doorknob: "Are you sure? You know how difficult I can be to open again. See, I'm bouncing off the latch to give you time to reconsider."
Me: "?%^&!"
*red load*
Maia: "Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeets! AWESOME. Bury me under the blankets when you make the bed. I'll attack them when you spread them over me."
Me: "Great, now you're clawing up the sheets. If only that weren't so cute."

*jeans load*
Maia: "TANK TOP STRAPS!!!" *pounces*
Me: "Give me that! You're going to put holes in my shirt."
Maia: "SOCKS!!!" *pounces*
*towels load*
Me: "Ah, thought I heard you coming. Preemptive strike..." *throws bath towel over her*
Maia: "Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Nice human. Nice warm towel."
Me: "You just better not have any cat litter in your paws."

* * *

Music of the week: I like finding quality indie singers on YouTube. Of course, I hardly ever listen to radio, so Daniela Andrade could be signed to a mainstream label and as famous as Lady Gaga and I would never know.

* * *

This just came up in my YouTube sidebar, and I'm wondering if I should be offended:

But I watched it.... and I must admit, I could sympathize.

Fortunately for me, Lent is coming. Sooner than spring. I never give up the internet entirely—that would smack of giving up friendship—but I do usually attempt to get my surfing habit under control and repurpose my time a little.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Tail of Emily Windsnap

The Tail of Emily Windsnap (Emily Windsnap, #1)Actually, all I really wanted to think about was the silkiness of the water as I sliced through it—before everything went wrong. I could still hear its silence pulling me, playing with me as though we shared a secret. But every time I started to lose myself to the feeling of its creamy warmth on my skin, Mandy’s face broke into the picture, glaring at me.

A couple of times, I almost fell asleep. Then I suddenly would wake up after drifting into panicky half-dreams—of me inside a huge tank, the class all around me. They were pointing, staring, chanting: “Freak! Freak!”

I could never go into the water again!

But the questions wouldn’t leave me alone. What had happened to me in there? Would it happen again?

Author: Liz Kessler

From Goodreads: For as long as she can remember, twelve-year-old Emily Windsnap has lived on a boat. And, oddly enough, for just as long, her mother has seemed anxious to keep her away from the water. But when Mom finally agrees to let her take swimming lessons, Emily makes a startling discovery—about her own identity, the mysterious father she's never met, and the thrilling possibilities and perils shimmering deep below the water's surface. With a sure sense of suspense and richly imaginative details, first-time author Liz Kessler lures us into a glorious undersea world where mermaids study shipwrecks at school and Neptune rules with an iron trident—an enchanting fantasy about family secrets, loyal friendship, and the convention-defying power of love.

Notes: As I believe I mentioned recently, I’m on something of a quest for an intelligent, well-written, captivating mermaid novel. Yes, this is probably absurd, but I've retained something of my childhood fascination with undersea life. I’ve yet to find the mythical object, though The Tail of Emily Windsnap was the best shell I've turned over so far.

Part of its success is its target age range. A middle grade story doesn’t have to make the scientific sense that even a young adult novel generally must, and from A Wrinkle in Time through The Giver, middle grade novels have often left the screws loose on their internal logic. In the case of Emily Windsnap, any reader with a remotely adult mind will find themselves thinking, “A bird may love a fish, but how would they conceive a daughter?” and this will go on niggling right through the suspiciously simplistic arguments at the climax about “being punished merely for loving.”

Be that as it may, Emily Windsnap is at least a well constructed story with an enthusiastic, likable young voice and amusing characters. For the reader at the right age, Emily should offer a quick, pleasant, relatable read; most middle schoolers can sympathize with her fear of being called a freak, and many a young girl dreams of being a mermaid. I did, and chances are I’d have loved this story at about age seven.

As it is, I enjoyed it well enough. Mermaid books nearly always seem to fail in the worldbuilding department, but Kessler kept up an appealing, if sometimes cutesy, depiction of underwater life. The little bits of wordplay were fun, and creepy Mr. Beeston, hilarious Mystic Millie, and loyal, lovable Shona kept the story lively and interesting.

Unlike A Wrinkle in Time and The Giver, however, Emily Windsnap does not have the depth to transcend its age category—but I can hardly reproach it much for that. It succeeds perfectly well at what it was designed to do. It’s a quirky, easygoing little story for the very young. As such, it's one of the stronger mermaid offerings available.


Top Ten Tuesday: Best Bookish Memories

This topic purports to be a challenge, what with thirty-one years of intensive reading to think back through. But I'll do my best.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Not necessarily in order:

1. The Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows release party. Rachael, Ben, Brenna and I went together, and we were Luna, Lupin, Tonks, and McGonagall respectively. It was quite the emotional buzz. As was staying up the rest of the night reading the book.

2. Reading the entire Chronicles of Narnia on the family moving drive from Florida to Montana when I was seven. All except for the last half of The Last Battle, anyway. I ran out of road and had to finish in Missoula.

3. Reading books aloud with my family when I was a kid. Wilson Rawls' Summer of the Monkeys was a favorite, as were George MacDonald's Wee Sir Gibbie of the Highlands and Alec Forbes of Howglen.

4. Always having a book in my desk for study hall during middle school (two of my three public school years). I can't count the number of times I read Johanna Spyri's Heidi, or Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows, or Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmatians.

5. When I went back to being homeschooled: bribing myself to do my math work by allowing myself to read a chapter of a novel after every ten sums. The great thing about being homeschooled is that you can get away with that in school.

6. This was probably kind of dangerous, but I used to take a book and sit in a corner of the horse pasture just to be near my horses while reading. On a related note, this Super Bowl commercial made me cry horribly. I miss Lovely.

7. The YA blogger meetup at ALA a couple of weeks ago. I met Lenore Applehans (Level 2), Kristen Kittscher (A Wig in the Window), Cat Patrick (Forgotten, Revived), two of the editors from Flux Books, Sarah Woodard of Sarah's Random Musings, Jasmine Rose of A Room with Books, Benji Kenworthy of The Non-Reluctant Reader, Rachel Patrick of Beauty and the Bookshelf, Amy Tintera (Reboot), Gabrielle Prendergast (Wicket Season, Audacious, Capricious), and half-met agent Jill Corcoran.

8. Writing songs about Harry Potter and The Wheel of Time. And performing said songs for WWU and Vancouver Potter fans.

9. Reviewing books on this blog. Does it count as a memory if I still do it?

10. Being part of my Catholic girls' book club. This is also still going on, but every meeting seems to be a good memory. Which reminds me, I haven't read this month's book yet...

What are some of your favorite bookish memories?


Beautiful Various

The short story collection of prizewinners and honorees from the 2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction is now available on Amazon for just $2.99. My friend Christie, otherwise known as L.C. Ricardo, was one of the honorees; her story, The Debt, is beautiful. Recommended.

Also along the writing contest lines: NPR has a contest open for 'three-minute fiction' in which a story is told through the transcript of a voice mail message. Sounds like fun, and I might consider entering if I weren't in so deep with my novels right now. Writer friends, you have till 11:59 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 10 to enter.

Not exactly along writing contest lines, but more to do with failures of translation—Nice try, L'Osservatore Romano:

This made me laugh so hard.

Lastly, artist and writer Terri Windling has been posting art-themed quotations on her blog this past week or so. I've enjoyed the lot, but last Thursday's had two that particularly spoke to me. The one begins "Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake..." and the other, "I think every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn't bother to do it...." There are others, and there are lovely pictures.


Belated Blogging and other stories

When I start blogging at 8:30 PM... yeah. I'll make sure you get the basics. Here's Maia demanding a tummy rub:

And probably preparing a sneak attack on the first
human who obeys.

* * *

Music of the week: I went looking for something YouTube recommended so I didn't have to think hard, and came up with Yiruma—probably because I've listened to a bunch of Nobuo Uematsu. Yiruma's themes tend to be a little repetitive, but very pretty, and I love this one. I'm also a sucker for piano and cello.

* * *

Happy weekend!