Friday, November 20, 2015

From My Bookshelf: Inkheart

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke was a favorite of mine when I was younger, and recently I snatched up a nice copy at a local secondhand store. In my opinion, it is one of the better Juvenile Fiction books. Funke is a wonderful author--I really must get myself a copy in the original German, but I feel that the translator Anthea Bell does a great job.

Inkheart

The main character is a twelve-year-old girl named Meggie, who's father Mo is such a good reader that when he reads aloud he pulls characters out of their stories. Unfortunately, these characters swap places with someone from our world, and Meggie's mother was "read into" the book Inkheart, while several unsavory characters were "read out" of it. The central conflict is between Meggie's family and  Capricorn, the leader of these characters. He attempts to force Mo to read other things out of books like gold and one of his killing tools "the Shadow." Along the way, Meggie and Mo solicit help from her great aunt Elinor (a book collector/horder), a boy named Farid (a character read out of Tales From the Thousand and One Nights), Dustfinger (a character read out of Inkheart), and Fenoglio (Inkheart's author). Obviously, the language tends to drift into the meta from time-to-time.

My copy of Inkheart. Bought it secondhand,
but it is in beautiful condition and still
smells like the dust of faraway places!
A Book-lover's Dream

Funke does an excellent job of capturing the mystical draw of the written word. Meggie's world is full of the wonder of stories. Inkheart does not simply tap into the emotions of book-sympathizers. It is also a very enjoyable tale.
 Any book-lover will be jealous of her home where "stacks of books were piled high all over the house--not just arranged in neat rows on bookshelves" and positively green over Elinor's house where every wall--except in the kitchen--is lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves (Funke 4).

During this particular reading, however, three thoughts rose to my mind.

1. Who Is the Hero of Inkheart?

Obviously, Meggie is the main character of the book that sits on my shelf, but the book called "Inkheart" (identified hereafter with quotes instead of italics) within the story must also have a hero? We know that in the world of "Inkheart" there are many dangers as well as beautiful things. We know that Capricorn and his men are antagonists. Basta and the Shadow are antagonists. Dustfinger is morally ambiguous, so not a hero--plus we discover that he dies in the story before the end. We also discover through Fenoglio that Capricorn does not die at the end of the story, but escapes to appear in the sequel he was contemplating at the time. The plot of "Inkheart" remains unknown to us, but surely there is someone who rises to be a hero? Fenoglio named the book to reflect Capricorn's black heart, so perhaps he is intended to be a sort of anti-hero?

I only wonder this because it seems to me that when you want to defeat the bad guys, the good guy who defeats them in the story might be a good place to start.

2. What Is Happening to the Story?

We are encouraged to think of the stories as other worlds. Mo explains that the stories don't change after the characters have been read out of them and theorizes that perhaps these are only shadows of the real characters who remain within the book. This presents some problems such as can more than one Capricorn be read out of the story? And what about Meggie's mother who was read into the story? She didn't leave a shadow. At the end Meggie's mother explains that the people in "Inkheart" only spoke of Capricorn "as if he had gone away for a while" (Funke 529). But wouldn't that change the story? I finally concluded that such an explanation only works for a story without a plot or for characters like Farid who were only mentioned briefly in their own stories.

3. A Knife to My Child's Throat

By the climax, I was very tired of intimidation. Capricorn built his empire on it, apparently. If Mo refused to read Capricorn's Shadow out of the book, he would threaten Meggie. If Mo escaped, they held Meggie as bait. If he didn't come for her, it is assumed that they would hurt her or even kill her.

By the end of the story this scenerio had played out so many times that I wished someone would refuse to be intimidated by the threats. Kill my family? Fine, but I won't help you do the same or worse to others. After all, refusing to stop someone from doing one bad thing by doing another bad thing doesn't make you guilty of the thing they do. Helping someone do a bad thing, though, that is clearly wrong. Now, obviously, I understand that love for one's family is a powerful motivator that does not always prompt one towards good. I also understand that this is a children's story, and such rhetoric is not appropriate. I was just frustrated with the character's helplessness.

Conclusion

I still love the story! I would encourage anyone with kids between 7 and 14 to read Inkheart to them. It is a really fun one to read aloud, after all, and fosters that sense of wonder about books. I would love to hear from anyone who has read this story themselves, too!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Beauty: A Brief Review of an Ugly Sleeping Beauty Tale

Sarah Pinborough's book Beauty: A Wicked Sleeping Beauty Tale follows a prince, a huntsman, and Red Riding Hood as they enter sleeping beauty's kingdom and awaken her. What they didn't know is that Beauty has a split personality: she is also the Beast (a crazy witch who enjoys drinking blood, torturing people, and general debauchery).

Unimaginative

Overall, the story is stark and unimaginative. I mentioned in my review of Cinderella that there are many really good retellings of classic fairy tales, but this isn't one of them. It is as if Pinborough took the bones of half-a-dozen or so fairy tales and cast them on the ground to see how they crossed when they landed. Rumpelstiltskin pricks Beauty with the spindle, and his daughter Rapunzel is Red Riding Hood's grandmother. Red Riding Hood falls in love with the wolf, and the huntsman finds a pair of glass slippers. The whole story is a re-smashing of tales that already existed, with nothing of grace or originality to set it apart.

Immature

Pinborough includes no fewer than three sex scenes in a book a mere 178 pages long. An attempt to preach against sexist double-standards seems to exist, but it is bogged down and muddled by the clumsy attempts at titillation.

First, the Huntsman engages in a one night stand, giving the reader a bit of a lecture about the follies of double-standards regarding virginity. He thinks to himself, "They were all just animals, after all, and why should a woman deny herself pleasure simply because an insecure man might think less of her?" (75). Pinborough seems to argue that women shouldn't be expected to "deny" themselves if men are not, and men are not, so everyone should enjoy each other! There are three problems with this argument. First, it assumes that a woman remains a virgin because of the male expectations imposed upon her and not for any motivation of her own, thereby stripping women of sexual agency through abstinence. Second, it assumes that a virgin groom does not exist and that, as such, women have no opinion regarding the past sexual encounters of the men they marry. Lastly, the argument denies any consequences of engaging in willy-nilly sexual activities. There are no consequences; people are just animals; and anyone with objections is "insecure."

Nevertheless, I would have more respect for the argument if it was upheld by the rest of the characters. Later, Red Riding Hood has sex with a werewolf. Of interest to note: the context from her point of view is sex in a loving, long term relationship and not a one night stand. While she certainly can't be argued to be denying herself, she is experiencing the moment in the assumption of exclusivity. Both of these sexual events are described with just enough detail to be arousing and were not completely unexpected to me, so I shrugged them off, glanced over them, and got back to the meat of the plot.

Crude and Disgusting

Although both of these encounters could have been written by a twelve-year-old, what really drove the story into immaturity was the prince's experience with the Beast. When Beauty changes into the Beast, the first minister tries to keep the prince in his room. The prince suspects that something is being hidden from him, so he leaves the room and explores the castle. He finds a ballroom full of young people doing it. There are three-some and lesbian acts (no gay equivalents = a sexist objectification of women). Five paragraphs describe the events of this ball as nothing else is described in the whole of the book. However, it cannot be argued that they were described any better. Not much is truly required of either imagination or experience to write about sex and deviant sexual acts. It just takes an immature fascination.

The prince is welcomed by the Beast. He feels attracted to her and wants to have sex with her (some spell is at work), but she tells him they can't have sex until their wedding night. That's ok, though, because he can still enjoy the ball with the two women she pushes him towards. What are the standards here? We are all animals and should have sex with whomever we want, one night stand or long term relationship, but not with someone we plan to marry until we're married? How is the preserving of Beauty's purity in this situation not a double-standard?

A Wicked Tale

The term "wicked" has several connotations. Perhaps my east-coast heritage brings phrases like "wicked-good" to mind first, but one cannot help but think of the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire when it comes to a re-writing of a classic children's tale for adults. Unfortunately, the reader is treated to none of the complexities in which that tale relishes in Beauty: A Wicked Sleeping Beauty Tale. Instead, by the word "wicked," Pinborough seems to mean crude, immature, and even disgusting. I cannot honestly say the book was "otherwise fantastic." A story isn't "dark" because it contains sex. A story is dark when elements like sexual sin, rape, violence, drugs, or death are confronted by the characters. Instead, after their brush with the Beast, the main characters put her back to sleep and escape. A conflict between light and dark is introduced and abandoned, solving nothing. But at least everyone got laid.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

I...To What Purpose? A Brief Reflection on The Long Earth

Today I finished reading The Long Earth, a science-fiction novel coauthored by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. In anticipation of enjoying the book, I also brought the second and third books home from the library at the same time. While I may still read them, I was disappointed in the first.

Long Earth

In The Long Earth, multiple dimensions, each with their own Earth (referred to collectively as "Long Earth"), become suddenly accessible to nearly everyone. These other dimensions are not variations of history, so much as of evolution. No humans exist on any of them. All that is needed to travel between them is a simple device called a "Stepper" or, in the case of "natural steppers" like the main character Joshua, nothing more than an effort of will. People can travel "East" or "West" to Earths on either side of ours. Certain limitations exist, like you can only bring along whatever you carry and no iron can cross at all.

Boring

Datum Earth (the original) is highly impacted by the sudden abundance of resources coming in ("gold isn't worth its wight in gold any more" 35) and sudden exodus of a fifth of its population heading out. Conflicts arise as people who were prosperous have the economy pulled out from under them, governments lose power, and anyone can appear in a locked room, steal, kill, or destroy, and then disappear again. Police Officer Monica Jansson certainly has an interesting time dealing with these problems and anticipating others. Helen Green, the daughter of a family leaving Datum to start a settlement 101,754 Earths away, writes in her diary about the journey and the difficulty of leaving behind her brother Rod, who cannot "step" even with a Stepper and was, therefore, trapped at home and abandoned.

The premise of the book is fascinating, but unfortunately, the story follows Joshua Valienté as he travels the nearly empty worlds with sentient human/computer Lobsang. They are traveling deeper than anyone else to discover things of possible profit to humanity, but, most of the time, even the characters are bored. They sit, passing millions of Earths in an airship and occasionally sending out probes.

To What Purpose?

The greatest conflict is the questions about the purpose of the human race--questions ultimately left unanswered. The characters refer to God, fate, or some outside force as having acted upon them in the revelation of these multiple Earths, and they discuss why--what reason should they have this ability. They discuss whether or not they "deserve" this sudden blessing in space and resources when humanity has squandered the first Earth they were given. But then characters talk about all of these ecosystems driven by evolution and refer to themselves as atheists who should not believe in either supernatural power or a greater purpose. There are nuns and Buddhists, but no one prays. A mythology underlies the process of stepping, but it is shrouded in "science."

The theme also waffles between the American dream of exploration and colonization--small communities working together for great prosperity with minimal interference from the government--and an accusatory environmental perspective. Are humans destructive of worlds, or is the desire to change the earth admirable? Is profit bad while prosperity is good? Is spending time with other people sub-optimal or does it provide a vital sense of community? These questions identify different ideas about humanity's responsibilities and purpose, but make no attempt to guide the reader towards a conclusion.

Conclusion

The story dragged. Its most interesting parts took place closer to home, where the conflict occurred, not out in the boonies with Joshua. The theme was jumbled and read like a freshman's research paper, explaining each possible position without taking a stance or forming an argument. The world the authors built serves as a platform from which they ask no new questions nor present new perspectives from which to answer them.


Pratchet, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long Earth. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012. Print.