Monday, 31 March 2014

The Wood Wife - beautiful fantasy


  The Wood Wife by Terri Windling is the second book I've read for Carl's One Upon a Time Challenge.  I read Doll Bones by Holly Black last weekend, and will post about it next time.  (It's good, don't worry!)  The Wood Wife is one of those fantasy books that comes along a few times in one's lifetime.  It's true in some deep way that my bones recognize. A true story telling, that contains so much wisdom and spirit that the reader is enriched in reading the book.  At least, I was. 

First of all, you should know that I tried twice before in years past to read The Wood Wife, and failed both times to get past the second page.  I despaired, because The Wood Wife won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and everyone who had read it has loved it. So what was wrong with me?  Then, in a lovely moment of synchronicity, I took out Jo Walton's new book What's So Great About This Book? from the library, and there was a lovely review of The Wood Wife.  I say lovely, because as soon as I read Jo's post, I knew that I wanted to read The Wood Wife asap. Luckily for us, Tor has links to past year's posts, and here is the link to Jo's Tor review of The Wood Wife.

What do I think about The Wood Wife?  I think it is beautiful.  It makes something in me sing, the same thing in me that recognizes that spirit lives in all things around us, and that telling stories brings out magic.  Books (telling stories) is a form of magic.  In The Wood Wife, Maggie Black inherits a dead poet's house in Arizona.  She had been corresponding with him for years, deeply moved by his poetry, but not invited to visit him while he was alive.  When she inherits his house, she is surprised, and the novel opens with her arriving at the house.  In a way, this is when Maggie arrives where she is meant to be, and the novel is the unraveling of Maggie the old, to Maggie the true. 

I love how Windling infuses the book with bits of the poetry the dead poet, Davis Cooper, writes, that has so moved Maggie:  a book called The Wood Wife.  The poetry Windling writes is lovely and rich, and each chapter opens with a bit taken from the 'book' Cooper wrote. Here is an example, from Chapter Two:              The hills call in a tongue
                                     I cannot speak, a constant murmuring,
                                     calling the rain from my dry bones,
                                      and syllables from the marrow.
                                                      -The Wood Wife, Davis Cooper.

  The longer Maggie stays there, the more she understands about Cooper and what he was writing about.  The language of the stones, the trees, the howling of the coyotes, the colours in the sky and the brush, the mountain - all these are alive and sing in the way that the earth sings to those attuned to it.  With Maggie hearing this for the first time, we the reader get to experience the land singing, and I found this incredibly moving. I could see the Arizona landscape, the colours, the heat, the way Maggie was experiencing them. It made me want to be there!

There are myths and mythic creatures in this novel, mixing Old World Europe with Native American myths. It feels a bit uneasy, which it is exactly that in real life:  the old myths and native American myths are uneasy with one another, although there is enough similarity that some of the stories and figures have gained a foothold here, even blended with one another when they are the same at their core.  This is the case of the white stag, which appears in this novel.  It is a familiar symbol from European and Celtic mythology, and in the hands of Windling, it becomes something rather more and special with the colouring of the Arizona native people's myths around it. What does the white stag represent?  In The Wood Wife, something a little unexpected, in the end.

Maggie is a poet, although she has lost this ability in looking after her first husband.  It's a failed marriage that ended some time before the novel opens, except that her ex-husband is still attached to looking after her.  It's a theme in The Wood Wife, about artists, spouses, loved ones, some of whom create, some of whom support artists.  What is the price of art?  What kind of art?  When does it become not healthy to seek out the Muse in nature?  In The Wood Wife, however, the land and the myths in the land also reach out to the artists, and the book is an exploration of how what one brings to art, also shapes if one survives being an artist or not.  It's a beautiful novel, tragic and hopeful, with love resounding all the way through it.

As Jo Walton says (and I completely agree with) in her review, it's refreshing that Maggie is 40 years old.  An older heroine, who has life experience already, and discovers how much more there is still to learn, about everything still.  I loved this.  Life doesn't stop once you have had your first adventure.  Sometimes the greatest adventure comes after you have tried and failed at things.  Sometimes it comes when after putting aside creative work, something awakens that true thing in the heart that says, yes.  I need to write/paint/dance/sing/build/grow, whatever it is that a person is really called to do.  This is what makes this novel so true for me, that people are sick when they are not doing what they should be doing, and become well and happy when they are. 
      "Beauty, motion, that-which-moves."
      "Ah.  that's what my Dineh relatives would call hohzo: walking in beauty.  That is how a man should live his life.  If he doesn't, he sickens and dies."

Maggie is wandering, homeless, working as a journalist studying artists and writers, because she is afraid to be open to poetry, and can't hear it any more.  She thinks she has lost it forever.  In coming to learn about and be around what moved Cooper Davis to write, she finds her way back to what she has lost.  That is the way that art works, and creative ideas.  They come to you through following what you love, and what inspires you, until you find your way to your true heart. 

There are also lovely human characters in The Wood Wife.  Dora is sweet and strong, and in despair as she watches her husband Juan pursue what he thinks is true art, though it turns out to be a much more dangerous thing than he realizes.  Johnny Foxxe makes music.  Cooper Davis wrote poetry, and his wife Anna Navarra painted extraordinary pictures of surrealism in the Arizona landscape, pictures that are lovingly described by Windling, so we the reader can picture them too.

There are Trickster figures, and mythic figures, and powers that stalk the land and watch over it.  Once again, as in Charles de Lint's books, there is the sense that the myths are not to be played with.  Juan makes a bargain with one of the figures, and almost dies.  Cooper did make a bargain, and died for it, as did his wife Anna.  Those old stories of faery touching and changing humans, linger here too.  There is a price to be paid for seeing the earth as it is, and walking with the figures of myths and stories.  Everyone who lives on the mountain is changed by living there.

The Wood Wife reminded me a little of Possession by A.S. Byatt.  In fact, I think The Wood Wife is what I wanted Possession to be.  I was a little disappointed in the dryness of Possession, in how the critical literary heritage in the book sapped the passion that is at the heart of creating poetry.  In The Wood Wife, all that passion for creating remains, and grows, so that making art is revealed  as a true calling.

There is a way to tell a story that is true.  Poetry, dance, all art have this sense around them, that if they are done true to how the artist feels and sees it, the listener feels it ringing or tingling through them.  The Wood Wife has this sense for me.  A magical, marvelous true fantasy.  I loved it.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The handless maiden, or how a fairy tale comes alive

               I don't usually get deeply personal on my blog.  However, this year I have had a deep experience with a fairy tale, which is still moving through my life.  I have been thinking on this for a while, and wanted to share with you one example I have found of a fairy tale being true.  I don't have all the answers for what it means for me, as it's a work in progress currently.  As we go through this Once Upon a Time challenge with Carl, I thought it would be fun to share how powerful fairy tales and myths can be.

 As many of you know, Terri Windling has an amazing blog over at Myth and Moor.  She writes about everything from the daily walks she takes with her family's dog Tilly over the moors near her home, to folk music every Monday, to writing and art, to exploring fairy tales and their meaning.  Last spring, she posted about the fairy tale The Handless Maiden, which I read at some point.  I don't really remember being moved at all, or particularly drawn to this fairy tale, even then.

Then, later last spring, I had a dream. In my dream, Angelina Jolie was cutting my hands off, and I had to have another woman's arms attached.  My family - husband and children, the real ones I live with, not dream ones - were waiting for the new hands to go on.  I was okay with it.  I woke up as the knife cut through my hands.  I wrote it down, which I do when I can remember my dreams, and wondered why Angelina Jolie was in it.   Beauty? She is beautiful.  Intelligent, interesting, yes. I don't watch movie stars though I see all the headlines at the checkout at the grocery store.  Then about a month later, I was thinking about the dream on and off, and something about it finally pinged in me.  Something about my hands.   I went back to reread it. And suddenly I thought, my hands were cut off!  The Armless Maiden!  and I ran back to Terri's blog to read what she had written about it in her post.  This time I went through it more carefully, and I was able to see what my dream was telling me:  my arms were being removed because I need to find a new way to care for myself.  In my dream, another woman's hands (anonymous woman, no one I knew) were being attached.  What I realized in the summer that I needed to do, was to grow my own, again.

For me, this has meant looking at how I care for myself, in almost all aspects of my life.  From getting enough sleep (do I?  don't I?  why or why not?) to how I eat (and I am overweight, I'll be honest here), and why do I eat so much?  When do I eat?  To how I care for myself in other ways: how often do I do things for other people because I should?  What do I really want to do?  Why do I struggle to know what is really true for me?  And almost all of it comes down to me living through other people's rules, which we pick up as we grow up.  It's easy to adopt ways of doing things because that's how they are done.  The real purpose of growing up is to choose a way and a life that is true to me, so that living every day is a reflection of me, and what I value most.

In the fairy tale, the handless maiden wanders until she comes to a dark wood, where she finds an orchard and the trees which bear pears, which she is able to eat off the branch.  I have been eating pears for months now.  Every time I eat one, I think to myself, I am the handless maiden.  What do I need to learn?  How am I caring for myself?  Is this me, or someone else I am doing this for, in my life?  And as I eat the pear, I think of taking its nourishment, which represents the feminine strength, according to Marie-Louise von Franz in the Handless Maiden post.

I am middle-aged, and I would think too old for fairy tales, except fairy tales don't work in our ordinary time.  They come when we are ready for them in our souls.  Being 50 is nothing in fairy tale time.   When I went to Clarissa Pinkola Estes' book Women Who Run With the Wolves, which is like my bible for when it comes to understanding how fairy tales reveal women's souls to us, she says the Handless Maiden tale is for women of all ages.  That the fairy tale is about a voyage undertaken several times during a woman's life, for as she ages and changes, so does how she needs to live  changes. 

Particularly relevant to me in that same post is this passage quoted in the post, from Midori Snyder:
"To follow the example of the armless maiden is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us. In the narrative, the Armless Maiden sits on the bank of a rejuvenating lake and learns to caress and care for her child, the physical manifestation of her creative power. Each time we follow the Armless Maiden she brings us face to face with our own creative selves."
As many of you know, I am a writer, and a poet, and have struggled with balancing my family, working full-time, with finding energy to create anything, for most of my adult life.  What this fairy tale is bringing me is the opportunity to create my own life, with writing more central to it.  One of the questions I have also been asking myself this year is, what supports my writing? 

Out of this, I am learning things about myself I didn't know.  I'm looking at how I value my creativity, and what place I give it in my life.  Questions I was afraid of asking before, I'm asking now, because I feel a re-awakening of the pull to write, the call to be conscious that I am a writer, and I write poems, and I need to make a real space for this in my life now.  If I am going to be true to myself, and live a life that fully satisfies me every day, then I need to incorporate space and time to be creative every day.  It sounds simple, and it's a sign of how far I have been from myself, that I have to undo so much unnecessary other things I do that keep me from writing.  Most of these are demands that I place on myself, not other people, though much earlier in my life they were placed on me by others.  Or just rules that I assumed for everyone, or really underneath, the fear of being different, which has haunted me every since grade school, when I didn't want to be different from others, even though I was.  I am still learning how to undo that one!

Fairy tales are real, in a way that our souls recognize, some deep wordless place inside us that is connected to the soul of the world around us.  When I think of my dream, I say to myself," no I don't want another woman's hands, I want to grow my own now."  It's not easy, though it is interesting, and fun, and mysterious.  I don't always like what I find, though I do like that I can be more freer in my life, and recognize what I need to create my art (a little bit, at least, now).  The things I craved - silence, being still, listening, solitude - I am beginning to give to myself more.  I am happy to say that my family are very supportive in this also.  If I'm happy, they are happy!  Just so long as I want to be with them, which I do, and it bothered me that I was always waiting to get some time to myself.  It's tricky, learning to balance everyone's needs, and along the way I put mine lower, at the end of the day, or not at all if we were busy.   I am able to be with them in a truer sense now, not always longing  for the time to be quiet, because I know I already have it.  It's not perfect, I still wrestle with when the best time is to be creative, and long for more time to dream, and wander in nature, and let things come to me. 

Have you ever had a dream that had fairy tale elements in it?  Do you recognize themes in your life that resemble any fairy tale in particular?  Has any fairy tale really resonated with you? 

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII challenge

    It's here!  It's here!  It's finally here!  Carl's annual Once Upon a Time Challenge, VIII. 

As he writes:  
“Come away, O human child: To the waters and the wild with a fairy, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
~William Butler Yeats
 "It is that voice that beckons us to Middle-earth and Newford, that calls out from the gap in the village of Wall and from the world of London Below. It is the voice that packs so much promise into four little words…
“Once upon a time…”
Perhaps you too have heard that voice whispering on the spring wind, or perhaps Old Man Winter continues to drown out the sound; either way that time has come: Once Upon a Time is here!"

I am going to do Quest the Second:" Read at least one book from each of the four categories. In this quest you will be reading 4 books total: one fantasy, one folklore, one fairy tale, and one mythology. This proves to be one of the more difficult quests each year merely because of the need to classify each read and determine which books fit into which category. I am not a stickler, fear not, but I am endlessly fascinated watching how folks work to find books for each category."
 I am also going to do Quest the Short Story: " This quest involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally you would post about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary."

The books:
 Doll Bones - Holly Black
The Wood Wife - Terri Windling
Dragon Haven - Robin Hobb
London Falling - Paul Cornell
Red Moon - Benjamin Percy
Frost Burned - Patricia Briggs
Moon over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch
The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss
The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater
Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay
And Blue Skies From Pain - Stina Leicht
Ironskin - Tina Connolly
Gossip from the Forest - Sara Maitland
Short stories from:
Snow White, Blood Red - ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
 Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm - Philip Pullman

The books are a rough list, I may add to it if I come across other books I forgot to add, or that just look interesting.

Some books I read for past OUaT challenges:
This is one of my favourite challenges.  In past years, I have read such wonderful fantasy,dark fantasy, and faerie books as:
Of Blood and Honey - Stina Leicht, review here
some fairy lore from The Lore of Scotland, here;
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, review here
Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint, review here;
A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin, review here ;
The Face in the Frost - John Bellairs,  The Godstalker Chronicles - P.C. Hodge, Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon - Charles De Lint,  Bone Crossed - Patricia Briggs, Tooth and Claw - Jo Walton - all reviewed here;
 Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, reviewed here;

I also came across a post I did in 2009, during that year's Once Upon a Time Challenge. It was for science fiction and fantasy day, and talks about why we read fantasy.  I thought it would be timely to link to here.   I also found a post I did on one of the essays in Ursula K LeGuin's book The Language of the Night, linked here.  Her book is all about fantasy, and why we need it.  Indispensible, and if you are looking for something to challenge you during this challenge, to help you sort through why you love fantasy so much (because so many people still think fantasy is a genre that is barely decent and certainly not literature), then this book will help you see how honourable fantasy books really are.  We do need them.

  If you read fantasy, do you have any thoughts on why you enjoy it so much?  Is it the fairies that intrigue you, myths coming to life, or the incredible range of story types available?  Do you like paranormal romances, vampire fiction, werewolves, derring do adventures, hobbits, elves?  Magic?  Trolls and goblins and dangerous things in the shadows?  Fantasy has all of these.  There is something in fantasy writing that reaches to our wordless selves that understand some things are beyond word knowing.    We know fairy tales are true, even if we don't quite know how we do.  Fantasy books enrich our imaginations, giving voice to our fears and dreams, and showing us ways to survive and avoid dangers.

I hope you have a wonderful fantasy reading challenge, my dear readers.   Thank you to Carl for once again hosting it!

Jane, Carl's challenge, and animal encounters

  I have to thank Stefanie over at So Many Books blog for this:  she linked to the Jane Austen action figure, in her post on March 13.   I have to say, I did not know that there was a Jane Austen action figure in existence.  And now I want it.  She even has a quill pen in her hand!  And a book!  Tell me you don't think that this would look perfect on your bookshelf......did I say that out loud?   *sh-h*

I will be doing my post tomorrow (ok, today, but I haven't gone to bed yet so it's still Saturday in my mind), for Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII challenge.  It's finally here!  I have to make my pile of books first, and decide which part of the challenge I want.  I love the poster: 
It is so beautiful. I'd love a copy to hang on my wall.  It captures the idea of fantasy perfectly.  And there's NO SNOW in the painting!  I will be back tomorrow (later today!) with my sign-up post and possible books. 

Happy (not) spring in Ottawa:
In the meantime:  it is still winter here.  Today we had 10 cm of snow fall, and now the temperature is plunging.  It will plunge further tomorrow night.  I have a dentist appointment Monday morning.  I'm not sure in what universe I thought booking a dental appointment on a Monday morning was a good idea, but it wasn't this one.  Plus, now we might set a record low temperature (for that day) of -20c.  Plus I have had a sinus infection for weeks now, and why oh why did I not think to cancel the appointment?  My upper teeth are sensitive without the addition of the infection.....I put it down to be chronically tired this winter, from being sick through it all.  I apologize, I don't mean to be whiny,  I wanted to explain exactly why I dread the dentist on Monday, and why my blogging has been spotty this month.  Winter just won't let up, so I've been burying myself in books (very good) and not getting out to walk (very bad).  The winter grumpies are hitting everyone here in Ottawa this month.  Blogging takes too much energy when it's all I can do to drag myself to work and home again.  I know that if Spring comes, I will feel better!  and I can get outside to hear the birds singing and watch the green come in and feel the sun on my face.....

I hope you are feeling spring-like temperatures and watching green spring up wherever you are.  Some day it has to get warm enough that I can stop wearing my winter coat and boots. 

Animals and myths and fantasy
One last thing:  over at Terri Windling's blog, she has a lovely post up about animal encounters, and what they can mean, in fairy tale, fantasy and myth.  This is a good way to segue into Carl's fantasy reading challenge.  The mysterious, the fantasy, the fairies, are all around us.  What animal encounters have you had lately?   Do you like to wander over fields or by water, do you cross streams, or walk through parks, wildish places?  All these are places for encounters with the unworldly, with the spirits, and also with the creatures that share this planet with us.  The woman in the painting for Carl's challenge has a crane with her. Do you have a special animal that you are connecting with this spring?  For me, it's been rabbits; for the past year or two I have been seeing them almost everywhere I walk.  I love bunnies, and I'm always surprised and delighted when I see them.  Because I often walk at dusk, or dawn on summer mornings when it's too hot to walk anywhere else, I am out and about when the rabbits are eating.  They also come out when I'm on benches at the park in midday, too, and are often on the edges of the park when I cross the Alexandra Bridge (one of four bridges connecting Ottawa to Gatineau across the Ottawa River) to Ottawa, in the early evening (around 6 pm).  I have started to pay attention to them, as I've been seeing so many over the 8 months of the year that we don't have snow.  They symbolize creativity, fertility, and fear.  All of which I have been wrestling with for the past couple of years.    This is how fantasy and myth intersect with real life, how we take in the world around us, by noticing that which is around us, and how we create stories and create or find meaning  in it. Terri and her horses, I and my rabbits, and herons, and cardinals, and even the occasional snake crossing my path.  This is also where fantasy begins......

Some of the more famous books with rabbits or hares in them are Alice in Wonderland, which  has the most famous rabbit of all, the Mad Hatter. There is also Peter Rabbit, and Flopsy bunny (and all the other bunnies) of the Beatrix Potter books.  Watership Down, of course, which I read many years ago, and loved.  What else, though? Like with Terri Windling and her ponies she sees around her valley, what animals come to you?  Do you have a favourite fantasy tale in which they appear?

Thursday, 13 March 2014

RMR: Seven Day Forecast - Canadian humour at its best


  I am long overdue for a book post here.  Today though, I am posting the above you tube link, because it is hilarious, and exactly what every one of us over here in Ottawa, Ontario and Canada are feeling this morning. On  a morning when it was -18c, -28c in the wind, again, with fresh snow on the ground, and more to come tomorrow, Rick Mercer has found a way to make me laugh.  So, enjoy, and I will be back when I am not in such a grumpy mood over our never-ending winter.

 By the way, for those not familiar with our comedians, Rick Mercer is one of Canada's best-known and beloved comedians and commentators.  He has a weekly half-hour show (The Rick Mercer Report), where he explores some part of Canadian life, does wry, witty commercials like the one above, and has his political rant for the week.  The Weather Network is also one of the most popular channels on tv in Canada, and everyone watches it to see what the weather is going to be like.  We do often joke that the 7 day look ahead forecast changes hourly!!!