Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dancing (and knitting) the Night Away: A Look at Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

"If you danced from midnight to six A.M. who would understand?" --Anne Sexton, "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," Transformations

A king wakes up each morning to find his twelve daughters’ dancing shoes in tatters yet again. Clearly, they go dancing at night, all night, every night, but where, why, and with whom? His questions about their nocturnal exploits go unanswered and his efforts to solve the problem himself—including locking them in at night—have no effect. Finally, in desperation, he proposes a challenge: any man who can discover the cause of the worn-out slippers will be permitted to marry one of his daughters—and consequently inherit his kingdom—as a reward. This story, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, is a classic fairy tale and serves as the inspiration for Jessica Day George’s excellent Princess of the Midnight Ball. George’s book is faithful to the fairy tale but she breathes new life into it and makes it her own with lovable characters and a story that, though based on an oft-told tale, still manages to surprise and intrigue. At the forefront of all this stands our hero, Galen, an experienced soldier at the ripe old age of “not quite nineteen.” When the long war ends, Galen gets a job in the palace gardens and starts collecting clues about the princesses’ mystery. As soon as I met Galen, the book had me. He’s kind, courageous, and puts all the princes in the book (and there are more than a few) to shame. And he knits. Knits! Be still my heart! Not only does he knit, but his knitting becomes vital to the plot. Best of all, he never sees the princesses as his key to the kingdom but as human beings in need of help.

As for the princesses, I admired that George included all twelve, rather than reducing the number to a more manageable three or six. As a result, we only get to know a few (Rose, Lily, Poppy, and Pansy—yes, they’re all named after flowers) but this suits the story. Twelve fully developed princesses would have cluttered up the works. As it is, we know the ones we need to know; the rest are defined by one or two characteristics allowing them to stay in the background without turning into ciphers. I liked that the princesses ranged in age from 17 to 6 and that these differences in age weren’t ignored as they are in most versions. Galen interacts with each of them differently—I particularly loved his moments with seven-year-old Pansy (so adorable). The romance (of course, a romance) between Galen and Rose, the eldest princess, starts off slow and builds over the course of the book.

George writes with warmth, humor, and obvious affection for her characters. Her descriptions of the underground kingdom are strikingly beautiful. You’ll be transported. Overall, a magical and truly enjoyable reading experience I heartily recommend.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Art of Perversion: The Unfortunate Duality in Images of Lolita

"To illustrate a story is to interpret it." --A former classmate.

Today on Jezebel, (an ever-burning beacon of inspiration for me) Katy posted the results of a 2007 challenge issued by John Bertram: to design a new cover for Vladimir Nabokov's controversial 1955 classic, Lolita. I read Lolita for the first time a year ago, almost ten years after I first tried to. This attempt resulted from my being 12 and always on the prowl for books with long, langourous descriptions of sex. I threw it down after skimming through and seeing almost no dialogue at first glance. There was a time when this could kill a book for me, sex or no. I also remember being terribly embarrassed to be seen reading it, even in Barnes and Noble. So I left Lolita on the shelf and depended on Francesca Lia Block and an old yellowed copy of Valley of the Dolls bought at a garage sale for those aforementioned descriptions of sex. It's just as well. I wouldn't have found any in Lolita. Not the kind I was looking for anyway.

This trip down nostalgia lane reflects the stark contrast between Lolita the novel and Lolita the legend. At 12, I knew Lolita as a "dirty" book about an affair between a teenage girl and an older man. Turns out this is what a lot of people, young or old, think Lolita is about. Actually, it's about a middle-aged pedophile's sexual obsession with a 12-year-old. The title character, whose name is actually Dolores, suffers years of rape and sexual abuse at the hands of HH, our narrator. And yet, in spite of this, time and popular culture have turned her into a symbol of sexual precociousness: a scantily-clad underage temptress sucking on an oh-so-subtle lollipop and peering over (usually red heart-shaped) sunglasses, ready to manipulate the helpless grown man who, of course, doesn't know better. Bullshit anyone? But how did the victim transform into a villain? True, HH casts her as a villain throughout the novel, but he's also probably the best example of an unreliable narrator outside of Poe. He's 37; she's 12. He's a pedophile. He's the villain.

That's what makes the results of this challenge (sorry if you have to reread this whole damn thing to remember what the challenge is) so fascinating. There's a clear delineation between those who read (or understood) the book and those who didn't. Some of the covers are stunningly beautiful and some look like Photoshop shat itself to death. Some look like they belong on the cover of porno rags or Harlequin romance novels (the kind 12-year-olds scour garage sales for) and some are horrific and genuinely disturbing, they are so on the mark. The one above is one of my favorites because it focuses on HH while Lo is obscured. His face looks pained but also annoyed and ready to confess something terrible. I especially love that he seems to be making eye contact with you, reflecting how HH turns the reader into a confidante. Another of my favorites is the one Jezebel posted with its article: a coverful of the backs of little girl heads all with different hair styles. One head, just above the title, is turned slightly. This represents not only Lolita, but also the many different "nymphets" that HH notices (and tells us about) over the course of his life. There are many wonderful covers though. There are many bad ones as well, but it just makes for a more thorough (and unfortuately, telling) exploration.

The good, bad, and ugly results of the challenge. [Flickr via BlackBook]

For good measure, with thanks to my beacon, the Jezebel article. P.S. Scroll down in the comments and look out for my favorite "real" cover. Black and white, a young girl in saddle shoes and a dark skirt, her bare knees barely touching. The copy I first peeked into at age 12 in Barnes and Noble (and now wish I had bought) had this cover. I think it sums up the book--innocence peered at and distorted by way of perversion--and it's since been discontinued.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day and the Simple Beauty of Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet

"Johnnie Fedora met
Alice Bluebonnet
in the window of
the department store.
'Twas love at first sight
and they promised one night
they'd be sweethearts forevermore."
-Make Mine Music

In honor of Valentine's Day, I'd like to share (see link below) what is probably my favorite love song, the ballad of one of my favorite movie couples. It's a Disney song from one of their most obscure movies, Make Mine Music. Released in 1946 when the Disney studio was in a state of financial uncertainty due to the war, Make Mine Music was intended to be a kind of "modern" Fantasia. Like Fantasia, it's a series of short films, each one set to a particular piece of music. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as well-remembered as Fantasia, even though it's endlessly charming and a lot of fun to watch (and listen to). Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet (or "A Love Story" as it's first introduced) is my favorite of these short films.

Sung by the Andrews Sisters, the song tells the tale of two hats who meet and fall in love in the window of a department store and are then forced to part when they are sold to different people. An odyssey ensues as Johnnie tirelessly scours the city for his beloved Alice. I first saw this at when I was eight years old, around Valentine's Day on the Disney channel and it may have singlehandedly made me a romantic. The song is heart-wrenching/warming and the vocals of the Andrews Sisters are terrific, giving voice to individual characters while also serving as joint narrators (and harmonizing like crazy). The animation is lovely as well, creating a world where every hat has life and personality. The humans are almost after-thoughts. They are seen mostly in profile, from the back, or from the eyebrows up. The emotions are so real and powerful it's easy to forget you're watching a story about a couple of hats. And because they're just a couple of hats, all this emotion has to be conveyed only through their eyes (yes, they do have eyes--don't your hats?). That's good animation.

I love Johnnie and Alice. For me, they are Valentine's Day. I can get through the whole day without watching a single romance with "real" people, but I need to watch this. It's lovely, it's nostalgic, it makes me cry in the best way, and it reminds me that "true love will come smiling through." Who doesn't like to hear that? It also makes me wish we still wore hats like these. What I wouldn't give to look out on a city street and see a great wave of fedoras...

It also shows why we never should have gotten rid of ice wagons. Practicality be damned!

Happy Valentine's Day!