A poem by Sappho

Sappho is one of my favorite poets, and every time I open my book of her poems, I’m always entranced by the ethereal, dreamlike nature of her work. Of course, Sappho’s work only exists in teeny fragments, but even though the verses are cut off at their knees, it’s still possible to understand the beauty and passion behind her work. Her voice is so raw, honest, and evocative. Her poems also remind me of spring, with images of nightingales, sunlight, the moon and stars, flowers and grass.

sappho1Here’s one of my absolute favorite poem fragments:

As Long As There Is Breath

You might wish
a little
to be carried off

Someone
sweeter
you also know

forgot

and would say
yes
I shall love     as long as there is breath in me
and care
I say I have been a strong lover

hurt
bitter
and know this

no matter
I shall love

from Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho translated by Willis Barnstone

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Reflections on Re-Reading Harry Potter

At nine years old my mother said to me, “You love to read so much, why don’t you read those Harry Potter books everyone is talking about?” Ever the stubborn girl, I told her I didn’t need her to recommend books to me, thank you very much (I was sassy). Then she bought me the first four books for Christmas. I devoured them in two weeks, and the rest is history.

I remember not being allowed to go to the midnight party for Order of the Phoenix, then being chaperoned to the release party of The Half-Blood Prince. When Deathly Hallows was released, I was deep in mourning. Like so many of us, Harry Potter had been a huge influence on me. Seven years after the last book, here’s why I still can’t resist re-reading them all the time.

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1. They appeal to my childlike wish for magic.

The world we live in is possibly anything but magical. Descending into the pages of Harry Potter means entering a world full of magic that we can only dream about. Little 11-year-old Harry is plucked from his miserable life with the Dursleys and finds a new world where he can find happiness. Reopening these pages means rediscovering this magic and experiencing hope.

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2. They stress the importance of love and friendship.

Hermione said it best when she said, “There are more important things—friendship, and bravery.” Harry Potter taught me about the strong bonds of friendship and about taking risks to protect the people you love. These books also taught me about the strength of love. Voldemort’s evil stems from his complete and utter lack of love, and Harry’s ability to love deeply and unselfishly is the one power he has that is able to vanquish this indestructible evil.

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3. The strong emphasis they place on courage.

So yeah, Gryffindors can be kind of reckless and short-tempered, but then again, so can we all. Harry Potter taught me the value of bravery and of constantly pushing oneself to take chances and never play it safe. Sometimes it gets you into trouble but often, courage means the difference between disappointment and the fulfillment of all your dreams.

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4. It’s effing hilarious

My family always made fun of me when I was a kid for laughing out loud reading these books, but you know what? Over ten years after I first read them, they can still make me crack up. And my family and friends still make fun 🙂

P.S. I drink a lot of coffee and take pictures of it with books.

Human Kindness: Thoughts on "Les Misérables"

What can I say about Les Misérables that hasn’t already been said? For seventeen days I carried this brick around with me. It became my ink-and-paper security blanket, and I was so surprised at how quickly I was able to be sucked into the story. When I finished I got really sad and felt like I couldn’t let it go, so attached had I become to 1830s Paris and to the characters and to this rich, multi-layered, murky, often depressing world. Hugo creates such vivid characters and gives them all their due. I closed the back cover and couldn’t believe I had finished, and I felt bereft at leaving it. I wanted it to be twice as long, believe it or not. When I finished I went back to beginning and read the first few chapters, soaking in the feeling of knowing the whole story, of becoming a part of something so beautiful.

photo-3I guess this review can’t function without acknowledging the musical, which inspired me to take the time to read the book in the first place. It’ll be hard not to discuss this book in terms of “what the musical doesn’t tell you,” but that’s sort of how I felt when I was reading it: I felt gypped that I had experienced the story without knowing the whole thing, with all its nuances and its vibrant detail, without really grasping what this story is all about, which, in my opinion, is the power and merit of pure human kindness. Helping your fellow man unselfishly, despite their flaws and vices, despite your own dire straits. This book is about pursuing goodness in yourself and sharing that goodness with others, often at great risk to yourself.

Who is Jean Valjean? That’s a central theme of both the musical and the novel. The musical would have you believe he is only a disadvantaged man, but in the book, he is so much more. Jean Valjean is a man consumed with hatred for the world and everything in it. Having spent nineteen years in prison doing manual labor for a petty crime (and many failed escape attempts which elongated his sentence), Valjean has little humanity left to speak of. He is, for lack of a better description, truly a dangerous man and a hardened criminal. Society has so ostracized him that he can only feel hatred for others. He has never known transporting love, compassion, or kindness.

Enter the Bishop of Digne. You may or may not know the story: after being turned away from multiple inns (and inns’ stables) for his known identity as a convicted felon, the only shelter he can obtain is at the cottage of the beloved Bishop of Digne. The Bishop extends every kindness to Valjean, treating him like an equal and letting him stay the night. Trusting to a fault, the Bishop never locks his valuables at night and Valjean struggles with himself, then decides to steal the Bishop’s silver. When Valjean is caught soon after, the Bishop tells the police that he had given the silver to Valjean, and what’s more, the Bishop also gives his silver candlesticks to Valjean.

This one act of kindness within itself contains the power to change a man completely. Valjean is not a gentle man; he is full of hatred and unbridled strength, but he allows himself to be redeemed by the power of the Bishop’s unselfish gesture. The act of kindness throws Valjean into a turmoil and he emerges from his emotional chaos with one overwhelming thought in mind: to dedicate himself to improving the lives of others, improving the lives of les misérables.

The entire story revolves around this central theme. Valjean sheds his identity and becomes the beloved Monsieur Madeleine, mayor and benefactor of the town of Montreuil-sur-mer. He becomes every bit as kind, unselfish, and generous as the Bishop was, and is constantly critical of himself. He denies all material comforts and gives alms to the poor without second thought. Constantly throughout the story Valjean makes strides to better himself, become more unselfish, more generous, more understanding. He sacrifices his own happiness and well-being repeatedly, not only for the betterment of others but also to atone for his sins, which he believes will always tarnish his soul.

I could go on for years about Valjean and how much I adored him as a character. I also adored the naive Fantine, who gave her love to a callous man and pulled out her own front teeth to feed her daughter (that wouldn’t make for a pretty sight onstage). I shivered every time the word “Thernardier” popped up on the page, but most of all I was struck with the kindness Hugo shows to all his despicable characters, Thernardiers included. Hugo shows such understanding about the horrid underbelly of humanity and how poverty can turn good people bad. At the heart of this book is the knowledge that love and kindness are transformative if you allow them to change you.

And the characters. By the end you feel like you have actually walked with them down the streets of Paris, you know how they think and why they act the way they do, and you want to follow Gavroche into his makeshift home in the Bastille. Paris becomes alive to you as well, and before you know it, you’ve unknowingly taken sides in a political battle that took place almost two hundred years ago. You watch the Battle of Waterloo and come to admire Napoleon Bonaparte. You learn about the mindset of the royalists and why Louis-Philippe was a good Restoration king. You wait for the June Rebellion and the building of the barricades.

This is a book about love, more than anything else. Victor Hugo believed in love at first sight and in the power of books like these. So do I.

“You who suffer because you love, love still more. To die of love, is to live by it.”

“He never went out without a book under his arm, and he often came back with two.”

 

Author Spotlight: Neil Gaiman

I’ve been reading a lot of literature by Neil Gaiman lately, and have discovered his flair for creating whimsical, inventive fantasy that sucks you in. I read Stardust a few years ago and Neverwhere just a few weeks ago. Next on my list are American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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In the past year or so I’ve been reading authors rather than individual books. It’s something I never really did before because I don’t like to be told what to do, mom. I always chose books based on the cover the description and plot, not because of a well-known author, or even because I’d read the author before. But recently I’ve tried to read an author’s entire works and I’ve found that I like the experience. I usually can’t read one author for too long though. I like to pick a different genre/time period to keep things interesting.

Anyway, this rambling post is meant to highlight one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman has a flair for creating hyper-real worlds that combine dark fantasy elements and a dry sense of humor. Collected here are a couple of my favorite Neil Gaiman quotes, about new beginnings and lost love. May these quotes bring a smile to your face as they did to mine.

About new year/new beginnings: 

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.”

About lost love: 

“There are a hundred things she has tried to chase away the things she won’t remember and that she can’t even let herself think about because that’s when the birds scream and the worms crawl and somewhere in her mind it’s always raining a slow and endless drizzle.

You will hear that she has left the country, that there was a gift she wanted you to have, but it is lost before it reaches you. Late one night the telephone will sign, and a voice that might be hers will say something that you cannot interpret before the connection crackles and is broken.

Several years later, from a taxi, you will see someone in a doorway who looks like her, but she will be gone by the time you persuade the driver to stop. You will never see her again.

Whenever it rains you will think of her. ”

Have a Happy Saturday, all. Thanks for reading.

-Lisa

"The Alchemist" and Achieving Dreams

I’m surprised it took me this long to read The Alchemist. The back cover of my edition features the hyperbolic blurb, “Every few decades a book comes along that changes the lives of its readers forever.” When I read that I thought a sarcastic, “yeah, okay.” But now, a few days later, I must happily eat my words.

It’s not that the book has changed my life, but its simple, inspiring message has caused a subtle but significant shift in my perspective. It all began with the introduction, written by Coelho himself. He discusses one’s calling in life and though he couches it in spiritual/semi-religious terms, it will resonate with anyone who has ever harbored a dream that seems impossible. For artists, especially, it feels especially relevant:

However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream…There comes a time when our personal calling is so deeply buried in our soul as to be invisible. But it’s still there…[We] must be prepared to have patience in difficult times and to know that the Universe is conspiring in our favor, even though we may not understand how. (vii)

tumblr_m5hlnzYdqg1qbaom0The simple, unbearable truth hidden in this novel is that our dream is possible, that it is we who frustrate the reaching of our goals and dreams because we are afraid. The universe, ruled in Coelho’s perspective by a higher being, wants us to achieve our calling. The universe will conspire to help us achieve it. Coelho says that because we expect the world to be harsh and hostile, it becomes that way through fear and inaction. If we work to achieve our goals and remain hopeful, they are absolutely within reach.

Soooo, that was the introduction. The theme carries throughout the narrative, however. We meet Santiago, a shepherd boy in the hills of Andalusia. He has already changed the trajectory of his life by eschewing a priesthood and becoming a shepherd so he could travel and see the world. He has a recurring dream of visiting the Egyptian Pyramids, has his dream interpreted by a Gypsy woman, and embarks on a quest of faith to find a treasure hidden at the Pyramids.

The novel reads like a parable the way Coelho refers to Santiago as “the boy” throughout. It’s a beautiful story about having faith in oneself and in the beauty of the earth. The language Coelho uses and the events that occur infuse the story with a sense of magic and spirituality. This kind of spirituality is inclusive of all religions and denominations; in fact, Coelho constantly emphasizes the connection that exists between people and the earth, people and other people, history and the future. Coelho himself expresses the belief that there is one Being, and that all religions manifest the same truth in different ways. The product of this belief is a novel like The Alchemist, which speaks to all people about letting go of fear to achieve their greatest potential.

I found this novel absolutely enchanting. I think this novel speaks to the power of spirituality and faith. I’ve heard much criticism about this novel, that it’s childish, self-help-bookish, etc. but I think its message is worth hearing. I know I found it worthwhile. Coelho has enchanted me before and I am confident he will in future.

The Valkyries is accompanying me to Alaska. When you read this I’ll probably already be finished (feverish plane reading is pretty awesome). Stay tuned for a review!

References

Coelho, P. The Alchemist. (1993) New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Incredible Love: Rooftops of Tehran

I read Rooftops of Tehran on recommendation from my friend, who had to read it for a university-wide literature assignment. First of all, I loved the idea of a book that an entire university had to read regardless of major or school, and I loved even more that this was the book assigned. Rooftops of Tehran is a sensitive, poetic love story that combines immense hope and dire tragedy with an accurate portrayal of Iran’s politically volatile atmosphere in the mid-70s. It taught me about ancient Persian culture and the political history of Iran, all the while offering beautiful truths on love and the universality of the human condition.

People do amazing things for love. Books are full of wonderful stories about this kind of stuff, and stories aren’t just fantasies, you know. They’re so much a part of the people who write them that they practically teach their readers invaluable lessons about life.

n298886Amen, sister friend. Rooftops of Tehran is about a seventeen-year-old boy, Pasha Shahed, from Tehran living under the reign of the Shah in 1973. He’s a romantic at heart and ambitious as well: he wants to move to America to attend college and become a doctor. On the rooftop of his home, he meets his best friend Ahmed and debates politics, talks about the literature he loves, and dreams about his passion for film. He also cherishes a deep love for his neighbor, Zari, who has been engaged since birth to a distinguished man known as Doctor. Pasha respects Doctor even as he envies him, and Pasha becomes attracted to Doctor’s subversive political ideology.

Disaster strikes when the SAVAK, the secret police, track the whereabouts of the politically inflammatory Doctor and murder him. Zari is grief-stricken, Pasha feels guilty, and the death of this man provides the emotional subtext of the relationship that blossoms between Pasha and Zari. It’s a relationship characterized by the pangs of first love all adolescents can relate to, but in this political landscape, their love is decidedly not light-hearted. Both must learn about themselves and what they believe in. They must choose a place for themselves within this cultural and political framework, and sometimes the consequences prove deadly.

Pasha’s voice and emotional monologue are what makes this novel magical. He has a poetic soul and a touch of naiveté that makes him endearing, and the love he has for Zari is innocent and tender. It’s a pure pleasure to read. I enjoyed learning more about Persian culture and the history of Iran when I read this book, and it shed a little light on a culture much misunderstood in the Western world, perhaps understandably so. More than anything else, Rooftops of Tehran proves that human experience spans across nations and cultures, uniting us all in a common thread of duty, fear, and love.

I think of her in a desert of loneliness while I’m abroad, and an idea forms. “If you feel lost,” I say, pulling her close once more, “look to the sky and you’ll see us there, together.”

I know your star, but which one’s mine?” she asks, letting her weight sink into me for just a moment.

“The biggest, brightest one.”

“That’s you,” she corrects.

“That’s us,” I whisper. “We share the same star.” (345)

References

Seraji, M. (2009) Rooftops of Tehran. New York, NY: Penguin.

"The Gargoyle" and redemption

The Gargoyle is a story about redemption. It’s disgusting and awful at times, explicit in others, and yet this book contains some of the most beautiful stories of love and fate that I’ve ever read. The story begins with the narrator remembering his brutal, gruesome car accident that left him with third- and fourth-degree (yep) burns all over his body. During a drug-fueled car ride, our narrator hallucinates a volley of burning arrows plummeting to earth toward his car. He swerves, nearly hitting a truck, swerves again into a ravine, and the car catches fire, slowly cooking our narrator alive before help comes to save his ravaged life.

The Gargoyle ReviewIn the hospital, the unnamed narrator toggles between recounting the sexual and drug-filled escapades of his pre-accident life and his excruciating medical procedures in the hospital. With his father a deadbeat and his mother dead in childbirth, he was raised by his indifferent grandmother. When she dies as well, he ends up living with a trio of meth addicts, before they die in a meth lab explosion. Sensing a pattern? Our narrator eventually becomes a very active porn star, before founding his own porn company. Clearly, he hasn’t been winning at life.

The graphic descriptions of his medical procedures are fairly revolting.

The doctors removed my wasteland exterior by débriding me, scraping away the charred flesh. They brought in tanks of liquid nitrogen containing skin recently harvested from corpses. The sheets were thawed in pans of water, then neatly arranged on my back and stapled into place…There I lay, wearing dead people as armor against death.

Awful, right? And that’s pretty tame compared to all the gruesome details the narrator chooses to include in this backward, near-perverted bildungsroman. He even had a penectomy, aka surgery to remove his charred penis. His malformed body has turned him into a living gargoyle, a grotesque lump of flesh instead of a man.

The combination of the narrator’s previous life and his revolting medical procedures in a hospital make for feverish reading. It’s like a car crash, you know? I just couldn’t look away, even though I found myself hating the narrator. But still, there was a humanity within him that was sensible in the text. Completely morally bankrupt, planning a careful, gruesome suicide, the narrator still evoked in me some nuggets of compassion. I wanted him to be able to start over.

Enter Marianne Engel. A few months into his stay at the hospital, a young patient from the psych ward floats into the narrator’s room with a bevy of astonishing tales. She has known him for 700 years. He’s been burned twice before. The last time they knew each other, he was an injured mercenary and she, a denizen of a German monastery called Engelthal, nursed him back to health. The face of the narrator’s salvation is a beautiful young girl, slightly off her rocker, a sculptor of grotesques, a believer in fate and reincarnation, in love and redemption. The narrator must allow himself to believe not only in her stories, but in her, and in himself. It’s engrossing, and it just keeps getting better.

As disgusting as the first section of the novel is, that’s how much beauty is present in the rest of it. Marianne Engel continues to visit the narrator, regaling him with stories of their past lives and all the ways they’ve been separated from each other throughout the centuries, in different locations and different eras. Borne along the waves of Marianne’s lush narration, we visit medieval Germany, Japan, Italy, and a Vikings-era Iceland. Marianne Engel is a positively magnetic personality, a character full of faith, quirks, enchantment, and full of profound truths–a character that I easily fell in love with. I even came to admire the narrator, as he puts his trust in Marianne and begins to heal not only his body, but his distorted soul. His transformation is spellbinding.

As are the stories themselves. This genre-bending novel is part romance, part historical fiction, part fantasy, and each story (within the story) is executed with precision and grace, researched to the point of exhaustion, and built so beautifully my senses came alive at each reading, and re-reading, of a sentence. The settings themselves become characters, and my heart ached with longing to visit each. It’s a novel of immense, overwhelming beauty, enough beauty to match its ugliness and smother the disgust I felt while learning about skin grafting with the remains of corpses.

You are mine, I am yours; you may be sure of this. You’ve been locked inside my heart, the key has been thrown away; within it, you must always stay.

I’ve heard many people complain that this book was over-hyped, that Andrew Davidson can’t write, that it’s overwrought, that they can’t believe a $2 million advance was paid for the manuscript, etc., but when I read this book, all that criticism falls away. No, it’s not perfect. It’s annoying at times and at others the love story seems ridiculous, but in some ways you have to suspend your disbelief–somewhat like the narrator did when he met Marianne Engel–and fall in love. It’s a novel about fate, love, and the always-present possibility of redemption. The way this book is written and the message it conveys about love and faith is one of the reasons I fell in love with reading and with stories in the first place. It’s both frightening and comforting at the same time.

Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.

Amazon, Goodreads, IndieBound, B&N

References

Davidson, A. The Gargoyle. (2008). New York, NY: Doubleday.

By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

Paulo Coelho’s heart wrenching little book is one of the best books I’ve read this year, or maybe ever. I’m on the verge of gushing here. After I read this book I went on a Goodreads adding spree and discovered I want to read every single thing Coelho ever wrote. I’d dig through his house for his credit card slips, if need be. New favorite author. Poetic, spiritual, this book hugs your heart and soul. There is so much love in a deceivingly skinny package. It’s not just an immense and powerful love story, but an immense and powerful life story. It’s breathtaking in scope and spirit. It’s also highly quotable, almost to the point where I wanted to copy and paste every [other] page.

But ultimately there is no good reason for our suffering, for in every love lies the seed of our growth. The more we love, the closer we come to a spiritual experience. Those who are truly enlightened, those whose souls are illuminated by love, have been able to overcome all the inhibitions and preconceptions of their era. They have been joyful — because those who love conquer the world and have no fear of loss. True love is an act of total surrender.

By The River Piedra ReviewAnd that’s just in the introduction. Read More »

"My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead" and other pretty things

This collection of short stories about love, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, has a weird name. But it’s pretty.

It took me a while to get through this one. I can read a book a week usually but I was nursing this one like a warm beer, and I like warm beer. That’s not to say it isn’t good, it’s just that the good takes a long time to find, and when it comes, you lose it again when the story ends. This may be a symptom of how I read, though–I’m not a huge fan of short story collections. Usually I read them in combination with a novel and switch off when I grow tired of one or the other.

Honestly, the two things I loved best about this compilation were the story by Nabokov and Eugenides’s own introduction. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” is everything a short love story should be and all you’ve come to expect from Nabokov.

Eugenides begins the book with a rumination on his short story choices and on what inspired him to become a writer. As a child, Eugenides learned about the Latin poet Catallus in his English class and read his poetry, meant to sound like birdsong. He describes the experience he had realizing that this poem, written two thousand years ago, had reached his ears as if by fate. It was then that he discovered the power of the written word. Whether or not this story is true, it makes for an effective introduction. Catallus was incidentally the first poet to write about a specific person in the context of love, rather than writing about love broadly and without object, as was the norm.

Photo Oct 31, 11 27 32 AMBut the part of the introduction that really tugged at my heartstrings was this passage:

It is perhaps only in reading a love story (or in writing one) that we can simultaneously partake of the ecstasy and agony of being in love without paying a crippling emotional price. I offer this book, then, as a cure for lovesickness and an antidote to adultery. Read these love stories in the safety of your single bed. Let everybody else suffer. (xvii)

While I disagree obviously with the sentiment that it’s better to stay in bed and read stories than fall in love, I do think Eugenides has pinpointed the exact reason many of us read to begin with: to experience euphoria and despair, and safely. We read about love so that we may fall in love.

The collection features some literary giants, and you may even have read some of these famous short stories already. My favorites were “Spring in Fialta” by Nabokov, “The Lady with the Little Dog” by Chekhov, “Mouche” by Guy de Maupaussant, “The Moon in its Flight” by Gilbert Sorrentino, and “Yours” by Mary Robison. Those are the ones that stand out most in my memory when I scan the table of contents and the ones that affected me most while I was reading.

I think I liked the idea of this book better than the book itself. Some stories were stagnant and fell flat, while others glittered with beauty and rang with truth. Still others were too long or too short, which was jarring and disrupted the pace of the book.

I don’t recommend reading it like you would read a novel, from start to finish. Rather, pick it up at random one day when you’re looking for a quick fix. The stories included are not simple, however. They’re complex and challenging and frightening. Like love.

References

Eugenides, J. (2008) My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead. New York, NY: HarperCollins

Fairy Tales Retold: "East" of the Sun and West of the Moon

This book is on my top ten favorite books list, and for good reason. I’ve come to realize that I very much liked fairy tales as a child, go figure, and this one is unique and enchanting. Rather than a retelling of a Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale, East is a reimagining of the Nordic folktale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” It’s a bit like Beauty and the Beast in the beginning: a beast (in this case, a white bear) approaches a poor man and offers him riches in return for his daughter. The bear takes her to his castle and every night, sleeps beside her in his true form, a beautiful young prince. For a few months the girl burns with curiosity but does not look at who else is sleeping in her bed. When she returns home, her mother gives her a candle to use at night to learn the identity of her nocturnal visitor. When the girl lights the candle, she falls deeply in love with the beautiful prince, but she also drips three drops of tallow on him.

With that act, the spell on him is broken and a worse one takes effect: if the girl had waited just a year without succumbing to her curiosity, the prince would have been transformed back into a man forever. But because she had spied, the prince is now doomed to marry a princess with a “nose three yards long.” The girl asks the prince where she can find him and he responds, “east of the sun and west of the moon.” Thus the girl’s journey begins. On the way, she enlists the help of the East Wind, West Wind, South Wind, and North Wind, and eventually battles her way to the prince’s castle.

The original tale is short and sweet, and East retains many of the details but adds a rich setting, well-developed characters, and a heavy-handed dose of Norse mythology thrown in for good measure. I’ve said before how much this novel influenced my interests as I grew older. The northern atmosphere and the subtle magical setting all played upon my senses as a child and I grew up with a love for the North and a passion for Norse mythology. But back to the story.

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My favorite aspects of this novel are the main character of Rose, the way the story is woven with aspects of Nordic myth, and the author’s own fantastical inventions. Early in the novel readers learn that Rose’s mother believes in the superstition of birth directions: that the direction a woman faces when giving birth bestows on her child a certain set of characteristics–something akin to a horoscope. Eugenia, Rose’s mother, wants one child for every “point of the compass” except for north because they’re unruly wanderers, and because of a prophecy she’d heard that any north-born she bore would be crushed under snow and ice. Due to serendipitous circumstances, her last-born, Rose, is born a North and not an East, as planned. The truth is hidden from Rose and she believes she’s a true, docile East-born.

Thus Rose (whose first name is Ebba, for East) grows up an exploring child, wandering around the fjords, climbing snowy hills, and getting into mischief. She’s a headstrong child, independent and brave. Eventually, the truth of Rose’s birth is revealed, and Rose grows furious with her family (this is the part that seems far-fetched, more so than a talking bear: why was her birth direction such a big issue?). So when the white bear shows up at her door offering her family riches in exchange for her, Rose leaves in part to spite her family, and in part to gain independence.

The story is narrated by five characters: Rose, her brother Neddy, their father, the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. This structure is the weakest aspect of the novel. It falls into the trap that all multi-narrator novels must be wary of: character confusion. Though Rose’s voice is distinct and strong, Neddy and the father are difficult to differentiate past the first fifty pages or so. As for the White Bear, his mastery of English is limited because of his animal form, and his narrative reads like a very bad middle-school lit mag poem. In Pattou’s defense, I can imagine it’s very difficult to give a white bear a believable voice. The author is much more skilled at giving him a believable personality, and a royally tragic backstory to boot.

Rose and the White Bear live harmoniously in his castle for several months. Rose learns that the Bear loves music and used to play the flauto as a human. She develops a rapport with him not unlike that of Beauty and her Beast. They come to trust and depend on each other, until she grows homesick, receives the candle from her mother, and unleashes the curse.

In this point in the narrative, Rose’s voice becomes much stronger. This is my favorite part of the book. The East, West, North, and South Winds of the original story become real people: the drunken captain of a deadly knorr, a French mother and daughter, and an Inuit shaman who leads Rose into the heart of Norse legend: to Niflheim and Asgard, to the realms of the gods. Though the myths are altered to suit the story and some details left frustratingly vague, the beauty of the novel lies in the way it is entwined with spirituality and myth, paganism and magic. Set in the sixteenth century, the story almost seems possible. The descriptions of Niflheim and Asgard are haunting and even frightening at times, and thoroughly entrancing.

The second half of the book is by far the superior. Rose’s journey is incredibly perilous and readers will become inspired by Rose’s determination and her eagerness to correct her mistakes and save the prince. The narrative is layered with Inuit folklore, Inuit traditions and practices, pagan magic, allusions to Norse mythology, and even an allegory for the Jewish Holocaust. Rose, in the process of saving the prince, finds within herself courage and selflessness, and a willingness to sacrifice herself to save not only the man she loves, but all those who have been exploited, abused, and enslaved. Not your average fairy tale, I’d say.

References

Pattou, E. (2003) East. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne, Norske Folkeeventyr (Christiania [Oslo], 1842-1852), translated by George Webb Dasent (1859). Translation revised by D. L. Ashliman. © 2001. Retrieved from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/norway034.html.