Here goes, kicking out what will hopefully be a weekly post where I talk about what I read in the last week. I started a whole jumble of books at once, so I’ve made an effort to slim that pile down.
Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book
Historical Non-fiction, Finished
A diary of sorts, The Pillow Book was written during the Heian period in Japan. Sei Shonagon was essentially the equivalent of a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, who asked Sei to write down just about anything that came to her.
I’m a fiction person, so even though I love myself some non-fiction, non-fiction always feels a little dry. Nonetheless, this book is amazing. Sei gives us such a beautiful taste of her culture – the love of poetry, the enclosed spaces where women lived, the fear of being seen by men, and the importance of and attention to weather and nature. Sei is also incredibly witty and her ability to use poetry in any situation is phenomenal. She’s also so human, so uncertain of herself despite her great talent. What I loved most was this idea of communicating so extensively through poetry. It’s in many ways a very roundabout way of speaking and I imagine there are some fascinating examples of people interpreting a poem differently. But I am also so intrigued by the idea of speaking in phrases that were beautifully and carefully constructed. Sei often takes a great deal of time to respond to someone, measuring her words and their meaning.
Catherynne Valente’s Speak Easy
Historical fantasy, Finished
A novella set during the roaring 20s, Speak Easy is about Zelda Fair, who lives in a grand hotel where every day is a party and the alcohol flows freely. Everything seems good and happy until a little door shows up in her closet.
Catherynne Valente is my absolute favorite author and she will pop up on this list quite frequently. As is true of most of her books, Speak Easy is about the suppression of women. Specifically, it is about how women are told they need to be perfect and pretty and sweet and just scrubbed up nice as a pearl. It’s also about how women aren’t allowed to own their own creativity or their own ideas. When Zelda Fair makes her way into the basement, she finds an upside-down world where she is allowed to be anyone she wants to be and she can cook up a good novel or painting or dance as easily as walking. Although of course it all goes pear shaped in the end. It’s sort of like Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway, where the characters find a place that accepts them just the way they are, but then have to go back where they are put into boxes and packed up tight.
My favorite part was the first half, where we’re just running around the hotel and exploring how wild and beautiful the language can be. Cat is also wonderful when it comes to creating something that feels very much of its time while also being unique. The upside-down world is very 20s, but I can’t say I’ve seen anything precisely like it before. I also adore the idea that in the upside-down world art is literally being turned into alcohol because alcohol is tied very hard into creativity in a lot of cultures (the Norse specifically).
Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home
Portal fantasy, In Progress
Look, here she is again. This is the last book in the Fairyland series, wherein September finds herself crowned Queen of Fairyland and threatened by the arrival of every King, Queen, Duke, and Princess who ever ruled Fairyland in the past. To prevent bloodshed, a cantankerous derby is arranged and whoever wins will rule Fairyland.
The first book in this series has always stood out to me as the best, but this one might be better. September has spent the entire series struggling with whether she belongs in Fairyland or the real world. And while it’s always been a theme, something has to be decided by the end of this book. Her struggle with the wonder of Fairyland and her ache for home has such weight and pain behind it. And it is so beautiful. The series has also spent a lot of time pointing out that even the best rulers do terrible things, but now September finds herself in that position – and you know Cat isn’t going to let her get off easy. I will also always be amazed by Cat’s worlds. This is not a long book, but she has created an entire ocean filled with tattooing cuddlefish and riddling monkfish and dangerous octopuses, a library with mean time and Agatha Christie and patient desks, and a foggy town with card bridges and a rotten sense of humor.
Back to Manderley
Literary Essays, Finished
In the internet world, I have been reading essays over at Back to Manderley. The essays analyze characters and symbolism in Sleep No More, which is a long-running immersive play based on Macbeth. I haven’t read such insightful and well-researched essays in quite some time. Even though the symbolism of eggs and birds and mirrors is very well established at this point, by using the play as a catalyst, they are able to come up with all sorts of fascinating angles I never would have thought of (for example, the idea that mirrors are a passage to the otherworld, which is absolutely terrifying for mortals, but a great tease for the supernatural). Without having been to the show, I’m afraid much of it will be very confusing, but if you’re looking for some information on Scottish and English witchcraft, Two Birds with One Bone; To the Crack of Doom; and What, You Egg! are worth a read.