Author Archives: librarycanary

Small Chirp: The Book as Artifact

From the desk of Melissa, the Library Canary:

There’s so much talk about the future of books lately. As readers turn increasingly to electronic alternatives to paper and the internet book-trade, the usual fingernail-nibbling questions emerge. What will happen to the book?  What will happen to brick-and-mortar libraries and bookstores?

Maybe books will become our bricks and mortar.

A recent trip to Vancouver, BC had me pondering the idea of the book as artifact. In Vancouver, book-oracles seemed to whisper from every street corner, prophesying the destinies of our discarded, unwanted and remaindered books. Here is what they showed me:

The Book Beyond Art:

An art installation at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia suggests one possibility. Continue reading


[ Book Review ] The Great Bay, by Dale Pendell

The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse, by Dale Pendell

North Atlantic Books, 2010.

Maybe you’ve seen those images of the earth’s biggest cities underwater, edited to show the predicted effects of climate change on the coastlines we know and love. Maybe you remember the summer when Armageddon and Deep Impact came out, or the next year when Y2K-induced panic sent people rushing to 7-11 for more bottled water.

Fortunately, The Great Bay isn’t really like that. Though it’s the story of The End of the World As We Know It, it’s a gradual end, with lots of beginnings. It’s a history of the earth after the Collapse, a global pandemic that kills most of mankind. What happens next happens slowly, over the course of almost sixteen thousand years.

That’s a pretty enormous scope, so Dale Pendell focuses in on California, and the gradual widening of the San Francisco Bay into a basin at the center of the state. While this is the earth’s story, told on a chronological scale only earthquakes, canyons, and rivers understand, Pendell gives it a human voice. Continue reading


[ In The Nest ] Q&A with Empress Chronicles author Suzy Vitello

The Empress Chronicles: Historic Fantasy with a New Kind of Heroine

by Melissa, theLibraryCanary

The Keepsake is the soon-to-be-released first novel in the Young Adult Empress Chronicles series, a fantastic look at the life of teenage princess Elisabeth in Bavaria—known familiarly as Sisi.

In The Keepsake, Sisi’s magical locket takes her back in time and gives her the power to predict true love—but it also embroils her in a dangerous competition with an evil enchantress who would use the locket to wicked ends.

The character is based on the historical princess Elisabeth who goes on to become the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary—a cult figure legendary for her eccentricity: bizarre diets, extreme exercising, exotic pets, a penchant for pink, and a mother-in-law from hell. In other words, the stuff of a novelist’s dreams.

The Empress Chronicles brings us Sisi as researched and imagined by Suzy Vitello.  And when Vitello’s not busy writing novels and running a popular series of writer’s workshops, she also maintains Sisi’s Blog. She first began writing the blog as a way of organizing her research, as well as delve more deeply into the mind and persona of the 19th century princess.

What would Sisi have made of Twitter, blogging, and Facebook gossip? What would she sound like? The result is, by turns, hysterically funny and eminently educational.

I asked Vitello to tell us a little more about her interest in Sisi, the scope of the series, and when we can expect to get our hot little birdclaws on The Keepsake. Continue reading


[ Book Review ] Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad

Melissa’s Review: The Penelopiad, a novella by Margaret Atwood

 
Atwood’s response to Homer’s Odyssey was first on my list of fun reading while on break from graduate studies. Having been on a steady diet of classics, I’m getting a little sick of the male protagonist and his heroic adventures.

Please, somebody pass the microphone to a woman on the scene. (Oops, not her. That guy just turned her into a tree.)

Here is Penelope’s epic–her own story, not simply her take on her husband’s renowned exploits. (Cyclops, or one-eyed tavern keeper?)  Penelope speaks to us from the underworld, having seen the intervening centuries come and go, changing the world as she knew it.  History has made of Penelope a figure of obedient loyalty; of Odysseus, a god-like hero. Behind the scenes, we find, things are not as glorious as they seem.

Far from a book-by-book translation of Homer, Atwood’s version focuses on a startling little detail from Book 22: the tale of the twelve murdered maids.

Homer tells us the maids were disloyal sluts, sleeping with the disrespectful suitors vying for Penelope’s hand in Odysseus’s absence. In the gruesome scenes of revenge that follow his return, Odysseus orders his son Telemachus to murder the maids for their disobedience, after forcing them to clean the bloody mess of the hall. Telemachus hangs the maids in a single row.

Atwood tells us the maids were essentially innocent, their flirtations with the suitors a kind of strategic reconnaissance mission ordered by Penelope in her attempt to preserve her family’s wealth from greedy hands.  The maids are “like sisters” to Penelope, bringing youthful energy, songs, and sweets to her room at night, where they help her unravel Laertes’ burial shroud. Their assistance in this dangerous deception is actually a gesture of loyalty.

And it’s also kind of fun. “There is indeed something delightful about being able to combine obedience and disobedience in the same act,” Penelope says of the maids’ mirth in their complicity.

In the voice of the maids, Atwood is often direct about this witty balancing of accounts:Atwood’s own delight is evident in this reworking of myth. Though obedient to the task at hand, her work is skillfully defiant of accepted academic perspectives– on Penelope and the maids specifically, and on the validity of feminist critique of myth. In the dark tenor of the maids’ songs and sea shanties (they act as a tragicomic Greek chorus, turning the story wheel between chapters), we can hear both the maid’s disobedience and Atwood’s.

“You don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.”

The comparison is an apt one for a novella exploring the ways in which one human life assigns value to another. Money is the paper symbol of a currency’s value; a story is the fictional symbol of real human dramas. How we see the maids, and how we see Penelope– hell, how we see women in myth– says as much about the story as it does about us.

Which is the whole point of mythology.

The Penelopiad is the second volume (2005) in Canongate’s Myth Series, “a long-term global publishing project where some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing.” (The latest edition is Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010). A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, a retelling of the Norse myth of end times, will be out in January.)

There will be critics of this kind of modernization of classic stories. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s reworking of The Iliad, underwent considerable critical fire for its efforts to bring the tale to a modern audience.

And there are some pitfalls of the process of modernizing an ancient story. For me, the weakness (here) lies primarily on the level of language. Though Atwood’s response to Homer is written in the same forthright, gripping language that makes her novels so compelling and masterful, it admittedly pales in comparison to the metered poetry of The Odyssey.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This is, after all, not a translation but a kind of poetic riffing: a story in its own right, and an important antidote to the hard-to-stomach female-bashing of so much of classic literature. A traditionalist might DQ me for reading Homer and Ovid through my 21st century glasses, but I argue there’s a great deal to be gained from Atwood’s refreshing revisioning, and from this kind of intelligent engagement with myth.

___

What say you, Canaries? What is your favorite myth/fairytale retelling?

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Related Reads:


[ Book Review ] A Trilogy’s Promising Part One

Melissa’s Review of Wildwood, by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis

An epic for middle readers? Sure. If those middle-readers keep a dictionary or app handy to recall the meaning of stevedore, stoat, mullioned, or culvert.

Read the first few chapters, and you may think you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and into a vaguely British den of articulate animals whose furnishings and adventures closely resemble those of most of your childhood fantasies. Ramshackle treehouses linked by precarious bridges and ladders? Check. Frequent opportunities to fly? Check. Heroics achieved by Radio Flyer and bicycle? Check, check.

In this Book One of the Wildwood Chronicles, we meet brazen Prue McKeel: twelve-year-old bird fan and quasi-loner; older sister to one-year-old Mac; yoga-practicing, messenger-bag-wearing, bicycle-repairing Portlander with a capital…well, P.

While baby-sitting one rainy day, Prue watches in horror as a murder of crows kidnaps baby Mac. She vows his rescue—even if it means braving the legendary Impassable Wilderness: the thorny, charmed (fictional) thicket of forest in the middle of (actual) Forest Park.

Its inhabitants call the territory Wildwood, and it turns out to be a much-contested piece of forest over which tribal factions war, armed variously with pitchforks, colanders, and packs of coyote soldiers. When her classmate Curtis tags along, Prue finds herself scrambling against time to save Wildwood and the lives of many—including her own. Continue reading


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