THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING by Catherynne M. Valente

I’ve been talking this book up to coworkers and friends since I was about halfway through with it, but I’ve found the process to be a bit superfluous. Despite the long list of specific praises I’ve had at the ready, the right sort of person (which, fortunately, is the sort of person I’m surrounded by daily) has been sold on the book as soon as I’ve said the title. And really, the title does a lot of this work for me. If you find it clever and cute, you will be as completely enchanted by this book as I was.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is Catherynne M. Valente’s first children’s book, and it’s easily become one of my all-time favorites. The story follows the adventures of a young girl named September who has tired of her life in Omaha. With her father off fighting in World War II and her mother at work in the factories, September decides she won’t be missed and accepts the Green Wind’s invitation to take her to Fairyland. Once there, September meets a variety of strange and sweet characters, all of which seem to have suffered a loss. Fairyland is darker than September expected, and as time goes on, it becomes clear that September might need to become the sort of hero she’s read about in stories, even as she becomes less and less sure that she’s the right girl for the job.

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I loved this book for so many reasons. The characters are lively and wholly endearing. The world Valente creates is imaginative but so well-realized, somehow managing to feel both completely fantastical and lived-in all at once. The tone is humorous and self-aware, similar to a Lemony Snicket or Neil Gaiman story, but Valente’s voice is so unique that I don’t want to downplay her with comparisons. Valente writes not only with humor and fantasy, but also with enormous intelligence. This book doesn’t talk down to its audience at all, which is my favorite quality in a children’s book. Not only does the book have a sophisticated vocabulary, but the language itself is so poetic that it merges with the narrative to create storytelling that’s different than anything I’ve experienced before. The story itself is poetic. It’s hard to even extract a passage as example; the best I can give is when September finds herself in a magical bathhouse, being taken care of by a soap golem named Lye:

“September’s head ducked immediately under the thick, bright gold water. When she bobbed up, the smell of it wrapped her up like a warm scarf: the scent of fireplaces crackling and warm cinnamon and autumn leaves crunching underfoot. She smelled cider and a rainstorm coming. The gold water clung to her in streaks and clumps, and she laughed. It tasted like butterscotch.

‘This is the tub for washing your courage,’ Lye said, her voice as even and calm as ever […]

‘I didn’t know one’s courage needed washing!’ gasped September as Lye poured a pitcher of water over her head.”

The language wasn’t the only part of this book that was sophisticated. This isn’t an easy story of good and evil, knights and princesses. The characters in this story, and the world they live in, are textured and flawed and genuine. There is deep darkness and deep love, and often, the two are intrinsically connected. This book dazzled me with its brain and its heart, and I’m really looking forward to diving back into this world. (Thank goodness it’s a series!) If a whimsical narrator, lovable characters, and a story filled with surprisingly dark turns and unflappable hope appeal to you, I think you will love this book–but again, you’ve probably known that you would from the moment you read the title.

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NOTES FROM NO MAN’S LAND by Eula Biss

This week’s review is another collection of essays (published once again by Graywolf Press, no less!), but what can I say? My wheelhouse is my wheelhouse. I do worry about becoming redundant, though, so before I begin to accidentally tread familiar territory, espousing things like “the expert blending of memoir, criticism, and journalism” and “the examination of the personal to reach a conclusion that’s universal,” let me tell you a truth about this book. It made me uncomfortable. It made me deeply uncomfortable. And this discomfort is so crucial, so necessary, that I want to make sure it’s not overlooked. Why did it make me so uncomfortable? To put it bluntly and succinctly, this is a book about being white in America.

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In Notes from No Man’s Land, Biss excavates the framework of race that underlies nearly every part of American life, from where we live (and why we can afford to live there), to how we experience school, to our response to natural disasters, even to the toys we cherish. The book is organized by Biss’s experiences living and working in different parts of the country, and the large, challenging concepts are belayed by her personal experiences, and her frankness in exploring them. Biss is not easy on herself, and this enables the reader the same sort of unflinching self-examination. In her essay “All Apologies,” for example, Biss explores some examples of official “apologies” that have been issued by our government, juxtaposing them to her own apologies as a way to explore the tension between remorse and the more selfish desire to be absolved. She writes of the time she punched her younger sister in the stomach, saying, “It was an experiment. And I was sorry the instant my fist hit her. Sorry before I even saw her face, covered in shock, a horrible purple. […] ‘I’m sorry,’ I gasped. ‘I’m sorry.’ But I already felt something else. I grabbed her arm desperately. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘don’t tell.'”

If the description of this book as being “about whiteness” seems strange, it’s not by accident. The white perspective has been the default in our national conversation for so long that it’s unusual to see it articulated, and that’s precisely why this book is so important. Biss is in a unique position to write about this topic. She herself is white, but she is directly related to people who are not, and as such, she seems to have grown up constantly aware of whiteness as an identity, rather than as a lack of one. She recalls her experiences as they oscillate between extremes of wanting to reject white identity but, at the same time, reaping its benefits. The rejection of whiteness itself contains paradoxes, as well; Biss seems to want to distance herself from her white identity as a judgment of the system that has elevated her from others, but she also seems aware that doing so might be to deny one’s own complicity in this system. At times there is a palpable tension in the works as Biss examines the ways race has scarred this country and yet, by doing so, implicates herself. This tension is smart, as it keeps Biss from treading into a sort of White Savior complex. Instead, she is informative and honest, and the lessons she derives from her experiences are jumping-off points into a much broader conversation, one that appears in daily life again and again. This book needled under my skin and lives there now, prickling every time I turn on the news, or go out to eat, or look for apartments…

There is so much to unpack here, and these essays provide no easy answers. The act of examination that this book creates seems to be an important start, but the book leaves you with the staggering work left to be done from there, work that is so immediately pressing. It feels like a call to action, one that it as necessary today as it has ever been.