Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Bear and the NightingaleVasilisa’s mother died when she was born, but Marina had known that she was carrying a daughter who would have the Sight like her grandmother. Pyotr, Vasya’s father, was heartbroken to lose his beloved wife, and he didn’t remarry until his daughter was old enough for the villagers to start whispering that she was a witch. She was a strange girl, talking to the domovoi in the fireplace and the spirits in the barn and forest. They took care of the family, crops, and animals as long as people left offerings to them and treated them with respect.

Pyotr’s new wife, Anna, arrived with a priest in tow. Anna was a royal bride whose marriage conveniently removed her from court where the Moscovites were beginning to catch on that the Grand Prince’s daughter was mad. As a matter of fact, Anna could see the same supernatural creatures as Vasya, but she did not welcome them. Rather, her sanity was being destroyed by fear. At the same time, although Konstantin Nikonovich had planned a powerful future for himself among the clergy of Moscow,  it suited his leader more to banish him to Pyotr’s small village up north, where he could paint his icons and force the villagers to pray to them instead of leaving offerings for Baba Yaga.

Before leaving Moscow with his bride, Pyotr met a terrifying, blue-eyed man in the market who gave him a beautiful jewel the same color as his eyes, telling him to give it to his daughter. When Pyotr showed it to Vasya’s nurse, she promised to give it to her soon, when she was a bit older and could appreciate it more. And yet the years went by, and Vasya did not even know about her jewel the day she wandered too far into the forest on a freezing cold night. Lost and confused, she turned toward approaching hoofbeats and looked into the blue eyes of Morozko, the Frost Demon.

Based on Russian fairy tales and folklore, this dark, enthralling story keeps the pages turning with beauty, terror, and a hint of romance. Vasilisa (Vasya) is a strong, courageous heroine who tries to be obedient to her father while remaining true to herself. She does not want to marry or to go to a convent, the only two paths open to women at that time, but she is willing to marry if she must. She also tries to be open to the faith of Konstantin and Anna, but she will not forsake the “old ways.” As in many classic tales, and certainly today, Vasya is portrayed as admirable because she eschews the traditional feminine role of quietness and submission for a more physically active and outspokenly nonconformist life. As a “wise woman,” she understands the ways of nature and cares for the needs of people and animals. These traits gain her the love and admiration of some, yet the fear and distrust of others.

As a believer, the straw man Christianity and the stock character of the evil clergyman were stumbling blocks in what was otherwise a fantastic reading experience. If you revel in traditional, pre-Disney fairy stories, ancient and magical tales passed down in front of centuries of crackling fireplaces, you will rush home to this book each evening. As you finish, you can have the joy of knowing that the sequel to what is now the “Winternight Trilogy,” The Girl in the Tower, was just published. Happy reading!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, by Deborah Heiligman

Theo and VincentTheo Van Gogh was four years younger than his brother, Vincent, and yet he supported him, both financially and emotionally, all of his life. Born in the Netherlands, Vincent moved around Belgium, England, and France in an effort to figure out where he belonged. He did not grow up wishing to be an artist, so when he made the late decision to start painting, he spent years just learning his craft. Theo worked as an agent in an art gallery, and he sent Vincent money for rent, paint, and the little bit of food that he ate. Vincent went for incredibly long walks, worrying his family with his gaunt, disheveled appearance. His worldview was so different from anyone else’s that when he asked Theo to send him more money each month so that he could rent a larger apartment for the prostitute and her children whom he had taken in, he could not understand why Theo refused. He sent sketches and paintings to Theo for critiques, since he knew that his brother was acquainted with all of the latest trends. Once he saw the use of light and color in the works of the Impressionists while on a visit to Theo in Paris, Vincent was inspired and worked feverishly to turn out an amazing amount of art in his short and tragic life.

Known as a post-Impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s artistic understanding is unique. Although he learned from the Impressionists, his thick brush strokes and symbolic elements move him past their more representational style. Perhaps as a result, he did not become financially successful in his lifetime, and his most famous works were created in his last few years. Heiligman demonstrates that it was his sister-in-law, Theo’s widow, who was largely responsible for introducing the world to Van Gogh’s genius.

Vincent Van Gogh portrait

Self-Portrait

Since these two brothers kept up a steady correspondence throughout their lives, sometimes with more than one letter each day, Heiligman was able to obtain plenty of primary source matter for this double biography. Many others have written about Vincent Van Gogh, but never springing from this relationship that was central to his life. The author follows the brothers from their childhood through their deaths— so close together— and she never shies away from the mental health issues that plagued them increasingly as adults. Their sister, as well, ended her life in a mental institution. Vincent did have some sort of medication, which he seemed to take sporadically, and today he would probably have begun taking medication for bipolar disorder in adolescence, which begs the question of his genius. Would Vincent Van Gogh—and so many other artists and creators—have given their gifts to the world if they had been “normal”? And what is “normal”? Is longer life more important? And who gets to decide?

The best books are the ones that make one think, and I’m still thinking about this one. My only wish is that the author had included more photos of Van Gogh’s artwork, and had referenced the included ones in the text. I looked up a lot of things on Google Images, only to discover a few of them later in the book. This thorough biography was written for teens, but includes details that make it unsuitable for younger readers. It’s on the short list for the Youth Media Awards in February, both in teen literature and nonfiction categories, and it is a worthy candidate, indeed.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Mythology and Poetry

I have been reading right along this past month or so, but I have not taken the time to tell you all about it. Here are two brilliant offerings for those looking for a break from novels.

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology

Neil GaimanWhat could be better in the deep midwinter than to read tales of the frigid North country? Here are many of the ancient songs, retold by a master storyteller. Sure, you could go see Thor in 3-D, but Gaiman shows him in all his pre-Spandex strength and bluster. Loki is despicably charming, whether he is truly helping the other gods or just saving his own unworthy hide, and all the characters speak in conversational, contemporary English. Although this is a friendly introduction to the Scandinavian tales, it is not for children. The gods, after all, were grown-ups, and they were not always—in fact, they were rarely—virtuous.

Devotions, by Mary Oliver

Devotions

mary-oliver-c-mariana-cook-2012-1-I had come upon Mary Oliver’s poetry in other collections, including Kwame Alexander’s Out of Wonder, reviewed here, but I had never read an entire volume by her before. I couldn’t decide among her many books, and so I was glad to start with this collection of poems from her entire body of works (so far) called Devotions. Most of Oliver’s poems are meditations on nature, and here they are collected from newest to oldest. They are simple and evocative, sometimes drawing upon her Christian faith, and the words flow from a long lifetime of living outdoors. The ocean figures largely here, but lest you picture a Caribbean island, Ms. Oliver and her partner live in chilly New England, with its hardy wildlife and pebbly beaches. Her poetry spoke to me so deeply that I asked for and received a copy of her latest volume, Felicity, for Christmas.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of Norse Mythology, and I read a library copy of Devotions before I received my own copy of Felicity. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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