Monday, January 6, 2014

Great Reads Quarterly, Oct.-Dec. 2013 (4/4)

This is the last of these quarterly round-ups of book reactions, since I think its a mess and talking about individual books for each post is easier. (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of Great Reads Quarterly 2013).

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.” 

So begins the book, told from the deceptive innocent voice of Merricat. We learn about her life, living in the isolated Blackwood mansion with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian. Merricat is the only one  who ventures out her home to the village, as the uncle is paralyzed and the sister is hiding from the village's hate - she's the suspected murderess of her own family. The murder of the Blackwood family remains a mystery, and still casts a pall over its remaining members. The uncle is still obsessed with that day, trying to remember all the details to include in a book he is writing about the massacre.

What's fascinating is the narrator's disturbed mind, which written from her perspective sounds reasonable and normal to herself. The girl is clearly insane and unstable, but its written in a charming and sympathetic way. Though a haunting book, the love between the sisters was portrayed well. Especially for Constance, who still sacrifices for her sister despite her sins. Also, the ending is both amazing and despairing at the same time.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
“The man who knelt before her would have sprung from her needles, even down the ghostly flecks of silver in his hair. She had not known before that she wanted all these things, that she preferred dark hair and a slightly cruel expression, that she wishes for tallness, or that a man kneeling might thrill her.”

Oh my god is the only proper articulation of what this book made me feel. Every page just left me breathless with art and wonder, this book made me realize that words arranged in the right way can induce shivers and chill. Deathless is a retelling and deconstruction of a Russian fairy tale, the story of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless re-imagined in the landscape of the time of Stalin. But it does not dwell too much in this reality. This is how fantasy should be, how a reader can be transported by osmosis into another place, familiar yet alien and filled with both beauty and terror. A reminder that if rendered the right way, magic is there and it is real, in the written word.

The tale begins with a young Marya Morevna, and with her we take a tour through the different creatures from Russian folklore. Then, Koschei the Deathless took her as his wife. Koschei is the Czar of Life, and since the world began he had been at war with his brother Viy, the Czar of Death. Marya plays a role in this war and changes from innocent to ruthless, during this war. Who will win, Life, or Death? That is, until Ivan comes, a chance for Marya to regain her lost humanity.

Well, that didn't say anything about the story, right? Here's the review from Publisher's Weekly (I know, I'm lazy):
"Twentieth-century Russian history provides a background for Valente's lush reimagining of folkloric villain Koschei the Deathless and his dalliance with Marya Morevna, a clever but troubled young woman. After Koschei sweeps Marya away from her family's home in St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad, Baba Yaga assigns her three tasks that will make her worthy of marrying Koschei. As she spends more time in Koschei's Country of Life, Marya starts to become too much like her unearthly lover, until naïve Ivan Nikolayevich helps her regain her humanity. Valente's lush language and imagery add to the magic and fundamentally Russian nature of the story, drawing pointed parallels between the Soviet Union's turmoil and the endless war between Koschei and his brother, Viy."

“Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak.” (Koschei to Marya)

“You have already gone into that tent. You have already made off with her. You have already lost her. You could tell your tale differently this time, I suppose. But you won’t. Your name will always be Ivan Nikolayevich. You will always go into that tent. You will see her scar, below her eye, and wonder where she got it. You will always be amazed at how one woman can have so much black hair. You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast. You will always run away with her. You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear. You have already done all of this and will do it again.” (The Gamayun to Ivan, about Marya)

Invisible: A Memoir by Hugues de Montalembert
Imagine an artist, whose art relies on his sight - sculpture, painting, and film. Then, robbers attacked his home in New York and blinded him with acid. Invisible is a terse memoir, the artist writing about the experience of being blinded and how he lived afterward. He acknowledges that losing his sight changed his life, and he writes about the despair he felt about it at first. But he learns to live with it, and even had a more adventurous life after blindness. He learned to swallow his pride and accept that he has to be helped, he even began to travel the world. He also learned to appreciate and use his remaining senses. A great book to remind us not to let setbacks let us down.

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