Terrible, horrible, ugly weeds: Reading for (not-so) fun.

I recently discovered that I had missed discovering a series dedicated to re-writing faerie tales.  It was called, obviously enough, Once Upon a Time.  I was shocked and felt like I wasn’t doing my job (self assigned though it may have been) of keeping up on YA/Children’s lit, especially that concerning faerie tales.

Now that I’m about halfway through the series (there are 19 books so far, I can’t tell if they’re done or not as it’s more of a thematic series than a plot series), I’m seriously regretting my decision to read it.  Unfortunately, I’m not regretting the decision enough to stop.  Why?  Because the series has some redeeming factors.  I think I’ll talk about them first, because I do have something of an impressive rant to follow.

Once Upon a Time seeks to redefine the context of faerie tales into something that’s more relatable.  The magic is still there, the fantastic is still–in the main–kept alive and well in these tales, but they’re put in contexts that modern teens can better understand.  One story (“Rumpelstiltskin”) is set in the late 1800’s and the poor farmer’s daughter is recast as the daughter of an Irish immigrant fleeing the potato famine.  Another (“The Frog Prince”) is set mid-World War I.  There’s even a post-Camelot (and yes, Camelot counts as semi-historical) retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

However, the re-contextualizations I found myself enjoying most were not the historical ones, but the political ones.  Violet Eyes, which takes on “The Princess and the Pea,” sets up the purpose of the ridiculous tests of a “true princess” as a way NOT to offend every neighboring kingdom.  In this version, the current monarchy is first generation, choosing a wife for their son means picking the first of their alliances.  The tests were an arbitrary way to pick that alliance and to sidestep the ready-to-explode political bomb as well as pick a wife with a good character and an honest spirit.  The “Jack and the Beanstalk” novel includes a coup and Robin Hood sewn seamlessly together (AWESOME!!!!!).

If these had been the only elements of this series, I would recommend it left and right.  As it stands, I whole-heartedly stand behind my first assessment, which I recently offered to a friend: NEVER read this series.  Yes, I am writing a Weeds Review of an entire series as a warning.  Because it is of a series with multiple authors, I’m going to have to break my rule about providing the long passage of writing and just hope what I detail gives you a good enough idea of style.

Where Once Upon a Time succeeds, it does fairly well.  Certainly well enough for me to support it in the endeavor to re-introduce faerie tales to mainstream literature.  However, there are some things it does not do well.

ONE: Some of the novels are based on historical figures.  This is lazy.  There are plenty of faerie tales left out there.  What about the oft-neglected Tam Lin!? Anastasia Romanov is not a faerie tale character, neither is Hua Mulan, though I will give that they have been semi-mythologized.  This is insulting, not only to the original countries and cultures from which these real people stem, but also to the readers who are reading faerie tales and then must suddenly divorce fiction from fact.  If the reader knows better, this is merely annoying.  If they don’t, this is BAD.

TWO: After putting all this work and care into re-contextualizing the faerie tales, some of the stories are just lengthened versions of the tale.  The authors got lazy, again.  They didn’t feel like finding a historical or political setting.  They just went and did.  Thppppp on you.

THREE: This is my major complaint.  These books perpetuate what I consider to be the one, and only, damaging faerie tale out there: love at first sight.  It isn’t real, it doesn’t exist and training teenage girls to expect it out of every day romance is about the worst thing a book–which is supposed to be a wonderful source for escape, yes, but also a source for learning about life–can do.

Now, my little brother points out that just because I haven’t run across love at first sight doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (this is the same little brother who recommended Heart of Darkness, he’s so good for me).  Granted.  That’s not the only reason I think love at first sight doesn’t–and can’t–exist, but I will admit to it being a decent part of my thinking (maybe 40%).  Even so, should I consider that forty percent of my conviction to be on shaky ground because my personal experience isn’t all-encompassing, the alarming frequency (sometimes three couples in one book!) with which love at first sight occurs in these books is still damaging to the target audience.  Teens, please forgive me for this, but teens are still at the stage where they are learning what to expect from life by what they are told in movies, literature, magazines, etc.  Is this wrong?  Yes!  Entirely!  Doesn’t mean it’s not true.  And, if they are told by the books that they read that love at first sight not only happens but happens so often that every hero and heroine across ages, countries, statuses, political situations, and economic levels can expect it to happen at some point in his or her life, the message is still HORRIFICALLY WRONG.

So why am I still reading this series?  I don’t know.  Part of me recognizes the redeeming factors, even rejoices in them.  While love at first sight is most out of control in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” that is also one of the best developed political situations.  Some of the characters are good!  Some are horrible stereotypes.  The romances are chaste, which is another big benefit.  I think too many authors try to make teens adults too early.  I suppose I continue to read to try to weigh it out.  The scales currently hang in balance.  They have to tip soon.

Reasons why I chose this book series above all others:

  • It’s caused a lot of conflict in me–that’s good, right?
  • I worry about this one and DON’T want a friend of mine recommending it to a teen they know.
  • I do respect the re-contextualizing that’s being done and think the authors deserve recognition for what they are doing.
  • I want to explain all my tweet rants about love at first sight from the past couple weeks.
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College for kids.

I know, I know, it happened again.  I read a book and didn’t review it on time.  The good news is, I read it on time.  The better news is, I haven’t been avoiding the book because I don’t like it.  I just felt very anti-internets last weeks and there you have it: no blog.

The Fire Within by Chris D’Lacey is a fun book.  One of the reasons it is so very fun is that it’s targeted at ten and eleven year-old boys, but the main character is a college aged.  The only ten year-old is a girl.   It’s absolutely fantastic.

It was several years ago that The Fire Within caught my eye.  It couldn’t have been too long after the third book came out.  I don’t think the second book was even in paperback in the US yet (the author is British and let me tell you it takes ten kinds of forever for his books to get over here–grumpgrumpgrump).  I don’t know why this is important to tell you, but it is.  I read the first book and was impressed by the fact that the author made the main character twice the age as the target audience and at such a different stage of life than you’d expect.  Also, when I went on to the second and third books there were some seriously existential discussions in the text.  Of course, this bumped up the target age to thirteen or fourteen (writing was still at a ten to eleven level, but comprehension is what bumped it), but I appreciated that the author wasn’t afraid to treat his readers as intelligent beings.  Some eleven year-olds will be able to follow those discussions and that makes this a great series to consider.  I very much enjoy series that sit on the cusp of an age group.  It does make it difficult to recommend in some ways (well, the writing is a bit young for you but the content is just right vs the writing is right up your alley, but the content might be a bit over your head), but it also gives a chance for a reader to stretch or relax.  These are great books to have around!

I took it in an attempt to find a different sort of dragon book.  I was tired of the same old Anne McCaffrey books (though I love them) and Christopher Paolini gets boring fast.  I had read the Dragon’s Milk series half a dozen times (has anyone else read those?) and as sweet as the My Father’s Dragon series is, it’s not really very dragony.  It was time for something new.  Something different.  The Fire Within is certainly that.

Dragons are not a given in The Fire Within.  They appear to be statues created by the main character’s landlord, Liz.  Her eccentricity, if you will.  David, the college kid/main character, finds it strange, but charming.  He finds Liz’s squirrel-obsessed daughter, Lucy, much more interesting, and less of a mystery.  A friendship that Liz half-approves of, half-disapproves buds between the two “kids.”  It’s pretty adorable.

When I first read this book, I was exactly what the target audience wasn’t supposed to be: I was a twenty year-old female.  It was fun being David’s age and reading the book through the age of his eyes, but with many of Lucy’s emotions.  Reading the book this time around, I felt a lot more like Liz.  David and Lucy get into the most ridiculous shenanigans caused in part by her impatience, his too-rational nature, and an unhealthy desire for secrecy.  Bringing in Liz on everything would have been a much better idea, but I suppose that’s how everyone feels about their parents at one point or another.  And who wants to ask their landlord for help?  I certainly never did!

So, I suppose one of the things I like best is that this book can reach out to so many: boys, girls, young, old, somewhere in between.  It’s not so much about dragons this first time around, but it is enough about dragons to bring the reader back for the next book, which really jumps into the created dragon lore that D’Lacey works so hard on.  I’m very impressed with it, even if I don’t always love it.  It can get pretty out there some days.  And choosing a connection between bears and dragons has–so far as I can find–no mythological precedent.  It’s a bit radical for this stodgy mythologist, but it’s good.  I’ll give him that.

So far as the prose goes, I have to give a hats off to the editor who made this book America-ready!  THANK YOU for not taking out the colloquial British phrases!  I love it that those stayed in.  Children need to get used to deciphering meaning through context and these words are fun to do that with!  “Wuzzled off” is a wonderful phrase for dying.  Wish there was something so good on this side of the Pond.  Props to D’Lacey, too, for using language easy enough to determine via context so that the editor felt he COULD leave it alone.

One of my favorite scenes, stylistically, was one of dragon scenes (no surprise there).  It was the first time David actually communed with his dragon, Gadzooks.  Liz makes special dragons for certain people and Gadzooks was what occurred to her for David.  Gadzooks is a writing dragon (as if there were any doubt I’d like this book, this sealed it).  David finally suspends disbelief and communicates with Gadzooks in that special place in his heart and mind where Gadzooks is not only real, but alive:

Lucy, undeterred, had one last option.  “Can Gadzooks have a try [naming the squirrel]?”

“Pardon?” said David.

“Ask him,” said Lucy.

“How?” said the tenant, looking bemused.

Lucy paddled her feet. “Dream it,” she breathed.

What?” said David.

“Mom, make him do it.”

“I’m cooking sausages, Lucy.”

“Oh, Mom.  Please.”

“Do what?” said David.

Lucy threw herself into the chair beside him. “It’s Mom’s special way of telling stories.  You have to join in and tell what you see.  Then the story really comes alive.  Things happen, things you don’t expect.  Oh, Mom, make him do it.”

Liz sighed and gave in: “David, close your eyes and picture Gadzooks.”

He looked at her askance.  “You’re not serious?”

“I thirty seconds, your dinner will be burned.”

“That’s serious,” said David.  He closed his eyes.  “OK.  He’s on his windowsill, looking out over the garden.  I think he’s wondering if it’s going to rain.”

“No,” said Liz, “he’s biting his pencil, deep in thought, trying hard to thing of a name for you squirrel.  Dream it, David.”

David rocked in his chair and let his mind float. “He flipped a page of his notepad over.”

“Hhh!” gasped Lucy.  “It’s working, Mom!”

“Shush,” went Liz.

“He’s writing something.”

“What?” gasped Lucy, too excited to be shushed.  David let his imagination flow.  To his amazement, he watched Gadzooks take his pencil from his jaws and hurriedly scribble down a name on his pad.

SNIGGER

David’s eyebrows twitched in surprise. Liz prodded a sausage or two with a for.  Lucy bit a fingernail.  Bonnington yawned.  The whole Pennykettle household waited for an answer.

“Snigger,” David whispered.

From somewhere came a gentle hrring noise.

David’s dark blue eyes blinked open. “Yes,” he said, “his name is Snigger.”

I wish you could see what the publishing company did with the font for Gadzooks’ writing.  Even visually that scene was compelling.  I love how that was a step-by-step journey into the part of David that was the writer, the part he had been refusing to acknowledge until now.  Yes, Gadzooks is alive in this book, but he is alive because of the creative part of David that David had nearly killed with over rationalization.

Please don’t think I’m one of those crazy “art over science” people.  I advocate balance.  I think that the science and the arts have to work in tandem and one of the things I respect so much about D’Lacey is that he manages to split that balance so very well in this and his other books.  You don’t have to give up one to have the other.

This book is not what I’d call typical YA lit.  It takes a special kid for me to recommend it.  I like it because it pushes the boundaries of expectations.  These books treat kids intelligently, and I am a big fan of that.  I hope to do so well in my ventures into YA lit.

Why this book was challenging for me:

  • Even upon second (or third) reading, it goes way against my YA expectations.
  • There are so many different perspectives in the novel to see it from.
  • It’s designed to make you ask questions and think, which I still do second (or third) time around.
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The different faces man gives to God.

This week I read God is Not One by Steven Prothero.  It’s a summary of the eight major religions of the world, the problem they seek to solve, and the solutions they offer.  It stands firmly against the theory that all religions lead to the same God, just by different paths.  This book points out the vital differences of each religion–not to mention each religion’s concept or non-concept of God–and firmly denounces the theory as misleading and harmful.

In this I am conflicted.  I cannot agree with the title: God is one.  Now, man’s concepts of God are not.  And religion?  There is no stability within a single religion, much less across several!  I agree that to say all religions lead to the same concept of God is misleading and harmful to religious tolerance (as Prothero points out, what is there to tolerate if they’re all the same?), but I believe that the same God is the well-spring of all truth–religious and non-religious.  Naturally, this put me at odds with the book’s thesis from the get-go, but not in such a way that I could not learn, nor was I blind to the merits of Prothero’s arguments.  My view did change some as I read this book.  In some ways, though, it is more firmly set than ever.

I got this book for a couple reasons.  One, because I am woefully out of touch with other religions.  Religious education isn’t just a non-priority in American public school, it’s a pariah.  If anyone so much as whispers about religion, you can practically hear the sirens and warning bells go off.  According to Prothero’s book, America is the most religiously diverse country in the world.  I believe it.  But, for being so religiously diverse, we are woefully uneducated.  That was reason number one.  Number two was a bit more personal:  I wanted to learn more about myself.  You see, I’ve found it to be universally true that when I study a religious text, I discover more of myself.  It happened over and over in college (English majors study a lot of religious or quasi-religious literature) and again when I read Campbell’s Myths of Light.  It doesn’t matter when, if I sit down with a critical text of a mythology, I come out knowing more about me than I usually do about the subject.  Studying any religion brings light and knowledge of myself in my world.  I love it.  Perhaps this is why I’ve chosen mythology as my career:  I want to keep learning as much as I can, but more than that I want to keep learning about myself.

So, with that approach, I’ve learned some fascinating things.  I’ve learned that I am just about as religiously illiterate as I thought I was, maybe a skoch less because I did read Myths of Light earlier this year and that gave me a decent introduction to Buddhism and Hinduism.  But still, I learned so much!  I love learning!  I learned how very spiritual Confucianism is, despite the fact that there is no traditional God the way I am used to.  And, even though that distinct difference is there, many of the principles of Confucianism are ethical guidelines I try to live by, but much better expressed.  Christians are not very good at expressing things, this I have noted before, but the side-by-side comparison in this book brought that fact into sharp relief.  The beautiful poetry of other religions is just amazing.  Christians don’t really have anything on par with that.

There is much I would like to talk about and I can’t even really call it spoilers because, well, there’s no plot!  But I won’t.  I feel very strongly that this book is one you need to come to on your own.  However, if there is one last thing I want to talk about, it’s how respectful Prothero is.  And by respectful I do NOT mean that he paints a sunshine and daisies world-view of religion.  No.  Prothero presents the good (for every religion works so hard to be good), but also the bad: Christians and Inquisition, Islamic extremism, Confucianism and sexism, etc.  He does not shy away from the fact that for every good there is at least one bad, that religion can be a damaging or helpful thing depending on whose hands it’s being used by.

I was so very impressed at the level of respect he maintained throughout all of this.  He kept the conversation open.  I felt as if I were in that perfect lecture that every serious college student dreams about attending: there are questions to be asked and answered, the professor is knowledgeable, and–best of all–you feel as if you are learning without any indoctrination.  That is hard to come by in a manuscript about religion.  Campbell certainly didn’t manage it, and he was one of the best!

The different faces of God presented in this book (or the different Gods, if that’s how you see it) are fascinating.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who feels they don’t know enough about world religion and who wants to think for a while.  Thinking about who you are, religiously and just as a person, is one of the most rewarding parts of reading a book.  It’s why I started this project, and this kind of book is exactly the kind of experience I wanted.

See you next week!

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Few more wicked than those who do nothing.

This past week’s book (I feel like I’m always saying that, how annoying) was The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff.  Be forewarned, there will be no quotes in this review as I returned the book to the library.  Sorry.  Honestly, there weren’t any quotes I could really think of that needed to be in the review as it was.  I’m sure, mid-review, I’ll regret that.  Oh well, no use crying over split milk, as it were.

This book was one of the first books recommended to me when I started this project.  My younger sister had just read it and said that it had an interesting treatment of the Fae in it.  So, I reserved it at the library back in mid-January.  It arrived just this past week.  Yes, that many people had it out on hold and were taking their sweet time reading it.  I hate waiting for things through the library.  I fully expect to be thirty before getting my grubby paws on the newest Brandon Mull book, which also is supposed to make an appearance on this blog.

Despite the delay in getting the book, my desire to read it had not been cooled, so I launched into it last Friday, determined to have it done as quickly as possible so I could catch up with the ridiculousness that is how behind I’ve gotten in my blogging (what can I say, my life never seems to slow down).  Well, I did finish it that night, but by the time I had, I did not feel up to reviewing any book, much less the one I had not had the time to sort through my feelings on.

Having had the chance to sort for a bit, I’m delighted to say that I’ve accomplished something: I’m only four days late on writing a review for a book that I didn’t like a lot!  That’s a significant improvement over the one to three weeks of the last couple times!

Now, as to why I did not like this book:  The writing felt pretty stilted.  That’s not to say that the subject matter and tone didn’t warrant an abnormal writing pace/style, but The Replacement didn’t just feel off, it felt off-kilter.  Something wasn’t connected about the writing.  I will admit, I may have been biased in this regard.  When my sister recommended this book to me, I went and read up on it a bit on Amazon.com and read an interview with the author.  She described her writing process, which includes writing down the “right” words with ellipses in between where there were words to be filled in.  I instinctively balked at the idea, but almost immediately admitted that each author did things very differently.  This is clearly what worked for Yovanoff.  However, I don’t feel like it worked for me and I suspect I wouldn’t have noticed the jilty flow to her writing as much had I not known about the way she went about it beforehand.

I did appreciate that, though this book is clearly teen fiction, she didn’t treat teens as hormone-controlled (borderline addicts) monsters who do nothing but drink and swear.  When the kids swore, I felt that the swearing was justified nine times out of ten from the emotions of the scene.  The recreational drug use (mostly, if not exclusively, alcohol) wasn’t brushed off as healthy, but neither was it made a big deal of.  Teens drink.  A lot.  That’s how it goes.  Do I like it?  No. Does ignoring it/not writing about it make it go away?  Not in the least bit.

Of course, I can’t talk about this book without getting on my sex soapbox.  But this time, it’s a really happy time on the soapbox!  Sexuality was treated with a healthy dose of humor.  Hallelujah!  I suppose what I so dearly hate about “adult” novels and their treatment of sex is how humorless it is, besides being unnecessary most often.  Sure, are there times when sexual scenes are a good idea in a narrative?  Yup!  I felt like Yovanoff found one of them: both her characters were desperate to feel alive and wanted and they did so by finding each other.  But the book also treated sex as something to laugh at.  As someone who recently graduated from college, this is how sex was treated by my friends all through school (and yes, that means through a good deal of elementary school as well).  The act of having sex itself is serious decision and we young people make it so much less intimidating by poking fun.  I feel, in many ways, this is actually more mature.  To realize that even the most serious of things cannot be taken too seriously or problems arise.  Also, there’s no way to survive Sex Ed without humor.  It’s either that or be scarred for the rest of your life.  Boils down to this: FINALLY!  A book that deals with sex in what I feel to be the “mature” way!

Now, onto the thing I did like, quite a bit: the villains!! >) *MUAHHAHAHAHAH!!!!*

Before I get into the book’s villains, I have a generic question:  Why is it that it seems the villains always get the best lines/songs/theme music/personality quirks/physical features/sidekicks/powers/etc.?  Seriously!  I’m not complaining, but I am wondering.  As an aspiring writer, I do know how fun/challenging it is to take myself there.  Two of my favorite characters are Vouivre and Jason Stern, and they’re only my favorites because of how fun it is to write them.  Vouivre because of her warped obsessiveness and Jason Stern because he just doesn’t give two hoots and a holler what other people think or what he says.  But these two aren’t very hard to write, just fun.  The hard villains to write–like the prison guards in a piece set in Nazi Germany–those are the more rewarding villains.  I had to write those with a certain playlist blasting in my skull, or it came out horrifically wrong.  As it was, the scenes came out only okay.  But they were definitely the scenes I put the most work in to and despite the quality, it showed.

So why is this, I ask?  I want to know!  Because this same thing seemed to happen in The Replacement.  I felt, very distinctly, that the Lady and the Morrigan (the two villains) were easily the best written characters of the bunch.  I wish this much effort had been put in to the main character!

The Lady is easily the most identifiable villain.  She’s downright evil.  She sacrifices children every seven years because she likes to.  Not because she has to, but because she likes it.  And, to make it worse, she could use the children of her community, but she uses the children of the town to keep them cowed.  She’ll also cause catastrophic “accidents” when she feels like the town doesn’t believe enough in the Fae (which is just a name I’ve given them, as she and the Morrigan prefer their race not be names, as naming takes away some of their power–it defines them too much (I have a feeling Yovanoff likes LeGuin, which is awesome)).  To add insult to injury, sometimes, in the middle of these seven years, the Lady will take a child as a pet, because it is beautiful.  The Lady keeps a servant who is a sadist, a masochist, and more than a little bit off his rocker as her personal torturer.  She is the nightmare of every sane child and a few insane ones.

The Morrigan can stop things and doesn’t.

You tell me, who is more evil?

Ultimately, if you’re a fan of the creepifying, I’d say give this book a whack.  You might like it, you might not.  I feel like the teen interactions are genuine and the magic isn’t so over the top that The Replacement feels like it’s set in a different world.  I didn’t really like the book, but I don’t feel like I wasted my time either.

Why this book was challenging for me:

  • The writing style was way off what I expected.
  • The true villain isn’t apparent at all.
  • The concept of naming as power.
  • The blood sacrifice vs love/adoration struggle.

A wound no soul should bear.

I love a good book.  I especially love a book that kicks my butt and hands it back to me, along with a few things to think about.  There is no better kind of book.

But, admittedly, there is a subset of these books that I used to avoid: those that tackled the issue of race.  Part of me did not because there is something in me that just cannot understand the mindset of one who thinks themselves superior because of the color of their skin.  It’s utterly ridiculous.  Part of me avoided the issue because the books themselves showed a side of mankind that I would, admittedly, like to pretend didn’t exist at all.  These books depicted all the terrible things a man–of any color–is capable of.

I read stories and books here and there throughout school when I was made to.  I did not absorb them well, and whenever I had the choice, I choiced out of them.  Then, in college, I read The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt.  It was exactly the kind of  book that I didn’t want to read.  It reminded me of everything I hated about American history: the justifications, the rationalizations, the blatant mistreatment of anyone perceived as “different” when–in fact–it was the “ruling class” that was different.  I hated every moment of reading that book.  I still didn’t  understand the attitude.  I became physically sick at the bigotry and violence.  It was a well-written book.  The Marrow of Tradition is what one of my professors calls “a book that should never be read for the first time.”

Thankfully, when book buy-back came around some months later, I immediately balked at selling my copy of Marrow.  There was another that I should have kept (The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells), but at least this one I knew to be a keeper.  The experience, so dreadful during it, had turned into a life-changing one in retrospect.  I still didn’t understand the attitudes, I still felt ill at the violence, but I knew myself better.  I had come to understand.  So I kept the book, and began looking for others like it.

Then, just a few weeks ago, my little brother recommended Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad to me.  He said that it was much what I was looking for in this blog and gave me a very sketched outline of the plot.  I knew, just from that bare sentence, that this was going to be one of those books I described in the beginning.   It surely was, as evidenced by the fact that I was tempted to SparkNotes the book earlier last week.  Once again, the attitudes were something my brain rejected before I could even really think about why they were there, the moving was slow because of the depravities I didn’t want to face.  Ultimately, it was just not the sort of book I would have ever read on my own even two years ago.  It was a difficult read now, but I’m beginning to learn.  Running from history doesn’t help anything; the past doesn’t go away just because I don’t like it. Much like The Marrow of Tradition in my Senior year of college and Myths of Light by Joseph Campbell for my first book this year: the experience wasn’t enjoyable, but it was good.

I think the way I feel about these books that make me  feel so raw inside is expressed perfectly by a quote from the book itself:

[We spoke in] common everyday words–the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on everyday waking life.  But what of that?  They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.

This is the terrible power of words: everyday language can terrorize and horrify as well as, if not better, than any grand language. After all, it’s every day routine that we expect no trouble from, so we expect no trouble from our common words.

One of the things I loved best about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was the consistent inconsistencies.  The frame of the novella is a sailor listening to the yarn of another sailor, Marlow.  But, Marlow is the true narrator and it is his story in first person that takes up most of the pages.  However, as is often the fault in oral storytelling, Marlow will wander into the weeds quite a bit, then come back around (or be brought back ’round) to his story.  Also, in his eagerness, he’ll skip ahead several hours  or days in his timeline, only to go back and try to fill in the details he missed.   This can be confusing at times, but this is storytelling at it’s truest!  I was raised by a storyteller, whose father before him was the grand ruling storyteller.  I would often find myself sitting by my grandfather’s side at family gatherings, listening to stories I had heard a hundred times, but never the same way twice.  Especially as Grandpa got older, he would wander farther in his vein before making it back to his story.  Sometimes, he never did.  I almost heard his voice narrating this, as he was an old sailor himself.

Something that absolutely amazed me was how respectful Marlow was of the indigenous peoples in the Congo.  His language was a product of the time.  Racial slurs that I would never hear nowadays peppered his speech, though not regularly.  However, his actions were respectful and–in many ways–in awe of the men who were there long before he and his company.  Also, he was universally horrified by the treatment of the natives at the hands of his fellow white compatriots.  He attempted, in small ways that would have been ever so significant then, to advocate for them.  It was a difficult thing to watch Marlow give up the fight to protect the memory of the wasted man named Kurtz.

Kurtz is despicable.  The few lines that the reader gets to read of his treatise on the treatment of the natives are horrific.  The worst is the line where he advocates mock deification of the whites to the superstitious and unexposed tribes.  He encourages those explorers who follow to subject these tribes to fear-mongering through self-proclaimed apotheosis!  This infuriates me.  In order to keep order in his divine dominion, rather than use knobs for his finials on his fence posts, Kurtz used shrunken heads.  He badgered whites into this religious fervor and observance with threats of physical harm or death.  He was the worst kind of despicable.

And yet, there is a part of him the reader is meant to sympathize with.  He is being cheated of that which he was given by the natives by his company.  He says, quite plaintively to Marlow, “All I want is justice.”  There is a sense there is something owed to the man, as the company stranded him and expected him to maintain all human civility without companionship for months.  Yes, there was certainly harm done to Kurtz and his depravity may not even be entirely his fault.

This is certainly the conclusion Marlow comes to.  He’s forced to bear the burden of Kurtz’s poison and horror on his own.  All the others around him were either killed or so horrified by him that they had not stopped to think that there may still be a man behind that horror.  Alone, Marlow is left to tie up the loose ends of this poisonous memory.  And, at the last, when he is given a chance to tell the truth, he spares  Kurtz’s intended the horror and takes it all on his own.  The heart of darkness in this book was far less Kurtz’s, but the one given to Marlow to bear.

It was a difficult read, a good read.  I may not yet fully be ready to face what is there, but I am beginning to understand.

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Something to celebrate. :D

Okay, I really did not mean to do a “Journey” check-in so soon.  Seriously.  But I’ve had a break-through!!!  This week I’ve been reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  It’s a good read and, when I actually sit down to read it, it goes by pretty fast.  But, for some odd reason, I’ve been having trouble engaging in the book.

So much trouble that I had the horrible thought, for just one moment, that I could SparkNotes Heart of Darkness.  After all, no one would know.  It’s just me doing this.  I’ve read about half the novel, and could even push myself to the midpoint before breaking down and reading the rest of it in summary.  I might even push a little past it so that I could rightly say I’ve read more than half the book.  Who’s really paying attention anyway?

Then I realized: me.

I’m paying attention.  This whole deal is for me and even though I’m having trouble slogging through a book I’m enjoying, even though I feel silly for putting a novel’s worth of effort in for a novella, even though I really do need to move onto this week’s book, I need to finish this one out.  I need to do this for me.  This week, I finally realized the importance of my project.

How awesome is that?!  I feel like the journey has really begun.  My brain  has finally engaged.  I’m awake in my library again.  The mission has been accomplished and yet barely started.

How very exciting.

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