The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson

The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson
Kindle Edition, 7380
Published by Crown Publishers, 2003
ISBN: 978-0375725609

Non-fiction doesn’t feature often in my “TBR” list, but The Devil in the White City has been on my radar since my friend, Lucy, read it in college. She had recommended The Time Traveler’s Wife to me, which I loved, but I didn’t pick up the book until recently.

Marvelously paced, the book chronicles the lives of two men–Daniel H Burnham, the architect tasked with the impossible job of creating and managing construction for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who uses the World’s Fair and his self-designed “Murder Castle” to sate his sickening blood lust.

The book is exceptionally well-written and engrossing; there is no mistaking that Larson loved researching for the book, and this love is projected onto readers. Larson alternates between Burnham’s and Holmes’s stories on a by chapter basis, a frustrating and rewarding experience for me. I would get so absorbed in Burnham’s tale, that I would find myself almost annoyed when I had to switch over to Holmes’s story. However, such is Larson’s story-telling, that I would immediately fall into step with Holmes’s story, and greet the next Burnham chapter with the same amount of annoyance and interest. As a reader, I strongly felt the “one more chapter” or “I’ll read through the next Holmes chapter” drive, and I found myself accidentally staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning just to finish “the next chapter”. One might think a serial killer’s story would be more compelling than that of an architect who has to overcome a dying economy and years worth of bureaucratic red tape, but I found myself devouring each chapter and equally interested by both narratives.

Larson also manages to place readers in time. There were so many new products and inventions introduced during the Fair, that Fair goers were thrust into the future with wide eyes. But such was Larson’s talent for revelation, as a modern reader I found myself as in awe of Shredded Wheat and Ferris Wheels and rows and rows of electric bulbs powered by alternating current (AC) as were the Fair-goers of 1893.

And on a personal level, Larson could not have captured Chicago more perfectly. I spent juinor high and half of high school in the Chicago suburbs and Larson made my heart ache for the city, and for the people, and for the wonder feel of wind blowing over the lake and onto my face.


Symbolism and Allegory in The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Paperback, 224 pages
Published by Penguin, 1994
ISBN: 978-0-452-28219-3

In allegorical stories particular characters represent a much larger theme or concept, a concept that transcends the bounds of the character to represent society or human nature on a larger scale. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Pecola, a mere child, assumes a much larger role. Pecola, the unfortunate young girl, impregnated by her father, represents the plight of the black person in an unforgiving, post-Great Depression society.

Throughout the novel Pecola encounters hardships fairly unique to blacks in the 1940s. She is ignored; she is shown little affection, even from her family; her needs are ignored, even by her people; and Pecola is not viewed in the same light as the Shirley Temple-like white children. Encounters with other characters in the novel highlight the struggle of the black culture as she faces abuse and deceit where ever she goes.

The first aspect of Pecola’s life to abuse her is her home. Her father rapes her, implying that black society, by not rising above the station and behaviours assigned to them by the white people, that blacks are essentially fucking themselves. Pecola’s apartment itself is an impoverished, dilapidated space remodeled from an old store front. The store was, once upon a time, prosperous but eventually went out of business. The recycled goods in which Pecola lives represents the second class treatment and segregation of the blacks. The Bluest Eye was written after the Civil Rights movement– when blacks were segregated from whites into second class, decaying facilities. Pecola’s isolated, decaying home mirrors current events as observed by Morrison. The segregation is even noted when Morrison points out that the rich white people lived up the street, across town, and up hill– higher up both literally and figuratively– from Pecola’s wretched living situation.

Through Pecola’s mother, Pauline, Morrison relates another hurdle that the black culture must overcome. Pauline steps on a nail and becomes slightly handicapped. This symbolizes the blacks’ already weakened condition. Through years of mistreatment and feelings of indifference directed towards Pauline, she becomes an apathetic servant who bows down and obeys her white “superiors”. Morrison uses Pauline to represent the individuals within black society whose feelings of inferiority prevent them from taking a stand against the whites for equality. Pauline ignores her daughter, thus ignoring the please of the other blacks in society who strive for equality. Pauline, instead of comforting her daughter after Pecola knocks over a pie, runs to help a crying white toddler and promises to bake the toddler another pie. From this experience, Pecola realizes that her needs are less important than a white person’s and learns to not fight back. The cycle of self-doubt, apathy, and inferiority is forced upon the next generation.

Even God and religion betray Pecola. When Pecola goes to Soaphead Church for help, he appears to grant her wish for “the bluest eye”, yet still uses Pecola for his own purposes. While promising Pecola blue eyes, Church has the unsuspecting Pecola poison a dog. Though he appears helpful, in the end Church, too, betrayed Pecola. Here Morrison uses Soaphouse’s name to not so subtly imply that the Church, a safe haven for worship and hope for most of black society, will not help the blacks attain their dreams if they are naive to the limits of prayer. Prayer alone will not save the blacks. Morrison is stating that unless black people educate themselves, and open their eyes to the motives of the white people AND of their fellow blacks, they will remain forever vulnerable to deception and betrayal as was Pecola. Moreover “Soaphouse” implies a place where things are cleaned and washed. Morrison is also warning her fellow blacks not be deceived into white-washing culture. To assimilate so completely into the white culture will also leave blacks unfulfilled. She argues that blacks should retain their individuality and cultural pride in order to retain their strength.

Through repeating interactions and motifs, most notably in the repeated birth scenes, Morrison shows the reader that each of these insidious traits are passed from one generation of blacks to the next. The first birth highlighted in the novel is that of Pecola. The procreation of her mother and father creates Pecola, and Pecola’s observation of her parents’ experiences with white people teaches Pecola how she should act towards white society. Pecola is taught to yield to white people, and to be ashamed of her existence and appearance as a black woman. These characteristics are perpetuated when Pecola’s father rapes her and impregnates her with an inbred baby. This baby shrivels and dies. Here Morrison is saying that if the bad characteristics, such as inferiority complexes, indifference, and withdrawal, aren’t stopped, they will be taught to each subsequent generation of black children until the entire race shrivels and dies. Morrison is warning her people and her culture that to sit idly by and to allow white people to degrade the existence of the blacks will destroy black culture.

Another repeated motif is Pecola’s desire for “the bluest eye”. In the novel the bluest eye represents equality. Pecola aches for blue eyes because she knows that blue eyes will make her happy. This symbolizes the black’s push for equality; equality will make them happy and successful as a race. Morrison is keen to point out that Pecola is not wishing to be white, she only wants blue eyes. Here Morrison is highlighting the fact that black people do not want to lose their identity as a race. They only want to be treated equally and fairly. Taking this into consideration, it can also be argued that Soaphouse Church also represents the government. Soaphouse promises Pecoal blue eyes and when Pecola looks into the mirror, she sees blue eyes. However, to everyone else, Pecola’s eyes are still brown. Here Morrison is implying that although the government has enacted laws which give the appearance of black equality, the nature of society ensure that blacks still have very few rights, and ensures they will be treated no better than they were in the past. Morrison is issuing a word of caution to her fellow blacks, urging them not to abandon their fight for equality until blacks have achieved true equality. Morrison greatly values and is very proud of her heritage, and this love is apparent in The Bluest Eye.

I encourage everyone to read this book and not just for the thought-provoking allegory. Because the book deals with difficult subject matter such as molestation, incestual rape, and racism, people have pushed for this book to be banned from schools. Yes, the subject matter is difficult, but when else are young adults given a forum to intellectually exam difficult topics? There is a larger social commentary to this book, and many other banned books, that is important and should be discussed. If we blind ourselves to the baser elements of our society, we are weakening our culture and our collective intelligence as a society, exactly what Morrison is warning blacks not to let happen. How ironic that her attempt to enlighten us the reader, and us as a society is the object of censorship. We should not allow ourselves to be sheltered, or allow the wool to be pulled over our eyes. Social injustices such as genocide and discrimination occur because of such naivety and censorship. Banning The Bluest Eye won’t lead to genocide or a police state or totalitarianism, but it is a drop in the bucket. Enjoy a banned book, and enjoy The Bluest Eye. You will not be disappointed.

For another review of The Bluest Eye, see Park Benches & Bookends

St John’s, Newfoundland

Last Friday I was told I needed to be in St John’s, Newfoundland by Monday. Unfortunately, St John’s is almost 2,000 miles away from Minneapolis (it’s closer to Ireland!) and requires a connecting flight (11 hours of travel, yay). Fortunately, my visit was only an hour long and my report was only four questions, so I’ve had the rest of the afternoon free! And what to do with a ‘free’ 36 hours in Newfoundland? Well, I decided to go to the most Easterly point in North America.

Cape Spear is only about fifteen minutes from my hotel in St John’s, but detours through residential and rural neighborhoods, and down narrow highways lined with yellow-leaved trees. But the view from the point looking back towards St John’s was pretty, if a little bit gray:

The most Easterly point wasn’t well labeled so I meandered around the WWII cannon artillery for a little bit:

Cape Spear served as a North American defense point in WWII. These cannons were provided to Canada by the United States through the Wartime Arms Agreement. Don’t think I didn’t laugh like a 13-year-old boy as I snapped this shot:

From the artillery I decided to climb up to the lighthouses:

Truthfully, that picture above was not taken from the artillery, but rather from a point further down the hill…I used it for the dramatic effect :) But from the artillery, I did have to climb these stairs to get to the new lighthouse:

And then had to climb these stairs up to the oldest lighthouse in Canada:

I absolutely adore lighthouses. I could take a bajillion pictures and still not feel satisfied. So you, dear reader, are now subjected to two more lighthouse photos:

After wandering around for quite a bit, I eventually found the most easterly point in North America!! Actually, there was a “Most Easterly Point” as identified by this sign…

…but there was also a path below the “Most Easterly Point”, which was quite obviously even more eastern than the “Most Easterly Point”. So I took a victory picture here:

It was blustery and rainy and cold, but it was well worth the trip. Newfoundland is lovely! And since it is surprisingly close to the UK, there is a huge Irish and Scottish influence here. People speak in an interesting Canadian version of a brogue, and the men like to call me darlin’. Even my rental car GPS has an accent “In tah-hunert mayters, tarn laft” which translates to “In two hundred meters, turn left”. The architecture falls somewhere between Old World harbor town and modern day suburbs. It’s quite cute and remote. I wouldn’t mind returning for a more full tour of both Newfoundland and Labrador.

And finally. The “Harbour View” from my hotel window was not so picturesque as one might imagine, but all-in-all this has been a great little trip:

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Paperback, 400 pages
Published by Harper Perennial, 2003
ISBN: 978-0-399-24677-7

I picked up this book to read on the plane to and from Scandinavia. Although I loved The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, I was a little wary of this novel’s subject matter, namely the fallout and self-doubt a mother experiences after her son commits a heinous school shooting. But the book won The Orange Prize, and as I’ve said before, The Post Birthday World was absolutely fabulous (read it, for real), so I took the chance. And I was privileged to read a deeply moving, traumatic book about love and loss and motherhood.

Formatted in a series of letters to her husband, Franklin, Eva Khatchadourian documents the story of her’s and Franklin’s love, their family, and her inability to connect with her son, Kevin. Initially I wondered why we are only privileged to Eva’s thoughts. Were we the audience to assume the role of Franklin? Was Franklin receiving the correspondence, but choosing to ignore these soul-baring olive branches? I decided Eva was writing to Franklin as I used to write to my friend Emily, just a name I wrote in a diary as I tried to connect with a part of my life that I had forever lost.

Eva uses these letters to justify her motherhood to Franklin. He can’t, as he did during their life together, claim that Eva is a cold-hearted, distant mother. He can’t chose to believe Kevin’s telling of events over his wife’s. He can’t dismiss Eva’s doubts about her son, about her role as a mother. He can’t dismiss her feelings. Eva finally is given the voice she was never able to have in their relationship after the birth of Kevin, and she pours her every self-doubt and frustration and sadness into the pages she writes to Franklin. She also uses these letters to probe deep within her heart and psyche to ask why. Why did Kevin commit these crimes? And the most heart-breaking question for her to bear: was she to blame?

Though there were moments of levity and genuine tenderness, as you may well imagine, this is a heavy book to read. We are privy to one woman’s sincere loss of everything that ever meant something to her; we experience her deep pain and profound self-doubt. This book was not an easy read by any means, but for anyone who has ever searched their soul for the meaning of their life, their reason for being on earth, there is an eloquence and honesty to Eva’s emotional release that everyone can relate to. Eva is also incredibly brave. She gives voice to thoughts many women have, but that are unforgivingly taboo — at one point she lists all of the reasons she doesn’t want to be a mother.

Through Eva’s telling of events, a common question we ask ourselves becomes Is Kevin really a horrible child, or is Eva a horrible mother? And the answer isn’t a simple black and white. Neither party is to blame, but neither party is innocent. I vacillated back and forth between thinking Kevin was truly an evil child to thinking he was misunderstood and acting out to earn his mother’s affection. And while I did think Eva was stand-offish and unsure of her role as mother, I could tell she harbored affection and love for her first child. And while Kevin seems like a horrid child, his actions as portrayed in the book are essentially his actions pushed through Eva’s filter. His actions aren’t necessarily true to reality, but they are true to Eva’s reality. And that is what the book is about, Eva is examining her reality.

Perhaps the best insight I had into her’s and Kevin’s relationship occurred 50 pages from the end of the novel. Eva and Franklin argue and determine they should get a divorce once the school year is over. Kevin would go with Franklin, and Eva would take Kevin’s sister, Celia. Eavesdropping, Kevin interrupts this part of the conversation and Eva realizes that Kevin doesn’t want to get stuck with his father, he’d rather go with his mother. It was the first time I realized that Kevin was really striving for his mother’s approval, an insight that was further supported in the coming chapters. Kevin gives a rare interview to a television documentary. The filmmaker asks Kevin about each of his relations in turn. Each is given a harsh critique, but when the filmmaker asks Kevin equally probing questions about his mother, Kevin, to everyone’s surprise, sticks up for his mother and everything she did and went through during and after his trial. And as the tv documentary pans out, Eva sees that the only decoration in Kevin’s room is a picture of his mother.

No surprisingly, there is also a clear Oedipal streak running through the novel. As Kevin ages his cries for attention, especially where his mother are concerned, become more and more sexual in nature. Even the method Kevin chooses for his executions is innately phallic; arrows, wooden shafts impaling soft flesh. Eva’s inability to cope with or react to her son’s odd, disturbing behaviour causes Eva to pull further and further away from her relationships with her son and husband. As she observes:

…I did feel under siege. My daughter had been half blinded, my husband doubted my sanity, and my son was flouting his butter-greased penis in my face. –page 300

If I hadn’t already decided I loved this book, one surprise element would have convinced me. I pride myself on the accuracy of my story-predictions; after all, I’m always right. However, I was genuinely impressed and surprised by Shriver’s story-telling at the end of the novel. Her ability to weave a story, even one as psychologically dense as this one, is unparalleled. She has the unique gift of completeness, each character feels like a whole being whose motives, flaws, and thoughts are natural to their imperfect humanity. This book was a fantastic read because it was poignant and true. It is highly recommended.

My New Home

I haven’t been reading much lately. My life is crazy and hectic, and reading hasn’t just been put on the back-burner, it’s been taken off the stove completely.

Not only did I just get back from vacation, but tomorrow is my last day working from the Seattle branch of my company. By Wednesday of next week, I will be on my way to my new-again home, Minneapolis, MN. I was born in Minneapolis, and lived there for a total of two post-natal weeks. In some ways I’m hoping this move will be a rebirth for me. I’ve definitely stagnated in life; whatever my expectations of post-college life, I think I speak for many my age when I say life is not as glamorous as I thought it would be. Nor do I find a logical path set before me; instead, I feel like a hurtling missile whose trajectory and guidance systems have been tampered with.

I will be living by Lake Harriet, the very lake my mother used to walk around as she tried to convince the already week-late Erin-fetus that it was time to be freaking born already. Living by the lake excites me, especially since I’ll be working from home. I will have some place to go, something to do during my work breaks. And there is a constant flux of people, so I (hopefully) won’t be some friendless loser whose only contact with the world outside is a monthly teleconference with her manager.

And of my favorite states in the Union, Minnesota ranks right up there. Michigan, Washington, and Maine (at least my fantasies of Maine and Maine winters) also score huge with me.

It’s strange, though. It’s my last day at work tomorrow, then on Tuesday the movers come, and Wednesday I start driving. But my actual move seems light years away; it hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m leaving this lovely, gloomy state; or that I’m leaving the one true and genuine friend I’ve made in years.

One comfort I have found is a strange companion indeed–The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland. I stumbled upon this poem while trying to look up information about Nuuksio National Park. The meter seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, so I Wikipedia’ed it. And indeed the meter, trochaic tetrameter or the Kalevala meter, was used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he wrote The Song of Hiawatha.

If you have read even parts of Hiawatha, you will recognize the Ojibwa (Chippewa) names of Nokomis, Minnehaha, Hiawatha, Minnetonka, and so on. Pretty much everything in Minnesota has an Ojibwa-derived name. And in another cool vacation-Minneapolis parallel, within the Chippewa National Park is an area called Suomi, which is Finnish for Finland.

So the Universe is reassuring me in all the signs-giving ways that this is, indeed, the right decision for me. I am happier for having found these poems, so I leave you with parts of both:

The Kalevala
O’er her eggs the teal sat brooding,
And the knee grew warm beneath her;
And she sat one day, a second,
Brooded also on the third day;
Then the Mother of the Waters,
Water-Mother, maid aerial,
Felt it hot, and felt it hotter,
And she felt her skin was heated,
Till she thought her knee was burning,
And that all her veins were melting.
Then she jerked her knee with quickness,
And her limbs convulsive shaking,
Rolled the eggs into the water,
Down amid the waves of ocean,
And to splinters they were broken,
And to fragments they were shattered.

The Song of Hiawatha
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
There the wrinkled old Nokomis
Nursed the little Hiawatha,
Rocked him in his linden cradle,
Bedded soft in moss and rushes,
Safely bound with reindeer sinews;
Stilled his fretful wail by saying,
“Hush! the Naked Bear will hear thee!”
Lulled him into slumber, singing,
“Ewa-yea! my little owlet!
Who is this, that lights the wigwam?
With his great eyes lights the wigwam?
Ewa-yea! my little owlet!”

Scandinavian Vacation

Well folks, I thought it was high time that I post some pictures about my trip to Scandinavia.

I began my trip in Copenhangen, Denmark. My super cute and tiny hotel, the Hotel Bethel, was located alongside the quintessential tourist photo op–the Nyhavn canal:

The hotel proved to be the perfect jumping off point for my Copenhagen adventures. Not only did they have the most amazing breakfast buffet, complete with the most delicious chive cream cheese and homemade bread ever, but it was also in the center of all the action, within walking distance of all the major sites, and close to many transit options. Nyhavn is also home to the DFDS Canal Tour, which I enjoyed so much, that I rode it twice. I also used the Hop On, Hop Off boat bus to get to the lovely Trekronor Fortress:

When I travel, I love walking around. I have luck…bad or good depends on your interpretation of events…but oftentimes I will board a bus or a train only to realize moments later that it is headed in the direction opposite to where I wish to go. But somehow I always find really cool locations, and by the end of my trip I usually have a good map of the city in my mind and can find my way nearly anywhere. This windmill was located behind some building on Kastellet Fortress. Many native Danes were jogging around the fortress walls, but I only saw three other tourists.

Walking around I also discovered the King’s Garden. I am a huge fan of good public art (for my favorite example of bad public art, see The Porter Wave), and the King’s Garden had some really cool sculptures:

My only disappointment was Den Lille Havfrue (the Little Mermaid) statue. I had been looking forward to seeing her; in fact, she was one of my reasons for visiting Copenhagen. But she wasn’t there!! Instead she was in Shanghai for some World Expo, and in her place was a video screen that showed a live-feed of Chinese tourists walking past her in Shanghai. Disappointing!

But all was not wasted, just beyond the Little Mermaid were my two favorite Copenhagen sites. Saint Alban’s Anglican Church…I must have taken 20 pictures of it from all different angles:

And the Gefion Fountain:

This fountain depicts the story of the goddess Gefion. She was promised ownership of any quantity of land she could plow in one night. To aid her in her task, she changed her four sons into oxen. The land they plowed was cut from Sweden and thrown into the sea, thus creating the Danish island of Zealand and the Swedish lake Lögrinn.

My other favorite part of the Denmark leg of my trip was the village of Roskilde. The Roskilde Domkirke was a true spectacle. Almost every Danish king and queen is buried or entombed in the Cathedral. From ornate coffins to kings buried in church pillars or buried underneath cathedral floors, I often found myself accidentally stepping on a tomb or two. My favorite tomb room (for lack of a better phrase)…

…had a beautiful ceiling. The Cathedral was just as gorgeous from the outside:

My main reason for visiting Roskilde was to visit the The Viking Ship Building Museum, which has to be the most interesting museum I’ve ever visited. Unique in layout, I explored the outer harbor of the museum first, learning about traditional ship building and viewing traditional Viking ships.

The museum practices traditional ship building, and I was able to watch museum staff add to the basic frame of a ship. There were also outdoor installation pieces depicting the voyage of the Sea Stallion, a large Viking warship constructed using traditional techniques by museum staff.

The museum tested the vessel for sea-worthiness by sailing it around Britain, to Dublin, and back to Roskilde over the course of a year and a half or so. Watching the videos of the voyage was awe-inspiring. The Vikings are basically the most manly race of human to ever exist, end of story.

Inside were the excavated ruins of six Viking ships that were sunk in the Roskilde harbor centuries ago, creating a ship boom in order to protect the harbor. This was an astounding find because each of the Skuldelev vessels, as they are called, represent the different types of vessels built by the vikings: trading vessel, fishing ship, large longboat, small longboat. I probably spent a good 4 hours exploring this museum, and I even skipped some of the movie reels about the Sea Stallion.

From Copenhagen, I traveled to Helsinki, Finland. I loved Finland. It’s all forest and water, sooo pretty. By this time, however, I was exhausted and lonely. It’s hard traveling alone. I wanted someone to share my adventure with, and had no one. I wanted someone else to be with me when I made an ass out of myself in restaurants because there was some other sort of restaurant protocol in Scandinavia than in the US. I also wanted to visit Suomenlinna Fortress, and Nuuksio National Park, home of the flying squirrel, but I didn’t have time or energy or physical strength left to make the attempt. In fact, by the time I got to Helsinki, I would not have been surprised to find bloody stumps in place of my feet. I did, however, get some great pictures of Suomenlinna while on the ferry to Stockholm, and am incredibly inspired to return to Finland for future explorations:

I also walked around Helsinki quite a bit. I was lucky enough to visit Helsinki when the United Buddy Bears were on display. This piece is the brain child of German artists Klaus and Eva Herlitz. They commissioned native artists from each country represented in the UN to make a bear that symbolized their country. The Bears were arranged in a circle, holding paws to symbolize peace and unity. I loved it! Some of the bears were gorgeous and symbolic:

Others could have used a little more creative thought:

There are some really great religious buildings in Helsinki, including the Luthern Cathedral, the under ground, granite Temppeliaukio Church (which also doubles as a bomb shelter during times of war), and the largest Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia.

My random wanderings also led me through a small botanical gardens with a gorgeous greenhouse building, and a cute little water pool:

I spent so much time walking around, that I was pooped by the end of each day, especially when I got to Helsinki. I loved turning in at 5pm and finish out the evening watching television. And although I do not speak a lick of Finnish beyond Kiitos (thank you), Finnish Big Brother became a fast favorite. Not only do young twenty-something Finns have a unique alternative fashion sense, but Finnish is a fantastic language to listen to. It’s all vowels and Ks and Js and Ps. “Ei koske merkittyjen paikkojen vuokraajia eikä huoltoajoa” means something about parking your car…I think. But see how neat it is?

To get from Helsinki to Stockholm, I took one of the Viking Line overnight cruises. As we sailed out of the Helsinki harbor, we passed the super exclusive yacht club, one of my favorite Helsinki sites.

The Finns aboard were hilarious. Bunches of drunk 50somethings intermingled with the equally drunk teenagers. There is a joke that alludes to the Finns’ quiet nature, but damn. I can tell you they are a talkative bunch of people, especially when drunk. At one of the bars, I think a really drunk Finnish guy (not cute or remotely my age) asked me to fuck him. It’s really hard to say no when you don’t know how to say no in any language the other person understands. The bartender saved me though, and it was more amusing than threatening or lecherous…he was so drunk a stiff wind would have knocked him over.

When I reached Stockholm, I was completely pooped. It was about 10am and my hotel was not ready for me. I dropped off my suitcase and went to Stockholm’s outdoor air museum, Skansen. Skansen was created by Artur Hazelius in 1891 in order to preserve Swedish history. He searched the country for traditional buildings–farmsteads from the 1600s, homes from the 1300s, examples of Sami and Finnish settlements–and gathered them in one place. In addition to the traditional Swedish buildings, Skansen serves to preserve native wildlife and livestock…yes, livestock. These are Skåne geese. I totally wanted to steal one.

But by far my favorite animal was the wolverine, blame my Michigan childhood for that ;) The only problem was that the little bugger was fast!! He would run from one end of his dual enclosure to the other. And every time he would stop and sniff the air (ie every time there was a photo op), all the little Swedish kids would run over yelling “Järv”, Swedish for wolverine. Of course, this would snap little Wolvey out of his perfect pose, so none of the photos I got were great.

I did go home two days early–crippled comes close to describing my body at the end of the trip. My RA didn’t act up too much, but my body definitely wears down faster these days because of it. But I was happy with my vacation experiences, I felt I saw what I came to see. And with my body screaming at me to sit the eff down already, I think it was the right choice.

But I will definitely be making another trip to Finland. I fell in love. Perfect weather (cloudy and gloomy), amazing nature, quirky language (to my American ears), fun people. It was fantastic. I’m even researching various ways to get to Finnish National Parks. Google some pictures, they will make your heart stop.

Pegasus by Robin McKinley

Pegasus by Robin McKinley
Coming November 2010
Read August 23, 2010 – August 27, 2010
Advanced Reading Copy, 397 pages
ISBN: 978-0-399-24677-7

The Pegasi are beautiful, sentient beings whose very existence is threatened until a rag-tag band of human explorers appear in their valley. The humans and the Pegasi form a precarious Alliance made difficult by the profound differences in communication between the two species. To ensure the Alliance is maintained, important humans are bound to important Pegasi once the human child reaches age 12. These bonds are tenuous at best, and both parties speak through interpretors. But their languages are intrisically different, and communication proceeds haltingly and inaccurately. Centuries pass and the Alliance, for all its challenges, remains strong–that is until Sylvi and the Pegasus Ebon are bound. These two share a profound connection, even prior to their binding ceremony, and they have such a strong understanding of one another that the Alliance and the survival of both species is imperiled.

First off, I must say that I adored this book. I am a huge fan of Robin McKinley, as many of you are aware, and for me Pegasus represents one of McKinley’s most imaginative and interesting works. What is perhaps most striking about this novel are the Pegasi. I find myself as in awe of these creatures as the humans in the novel. McKinley has always been especially adept at creating a world for her characaters to exit within, and for readers, stepping into these worlds is as effortless as dropping off that last stair and onto the ground. But the world created in Pegasus has to be a masterpiece. Here, not only has McKinley created a world with a unique history and mythology, but she has also created an amazingly rich culture–that of the Pegasi–complete with unique religion and customs, artwork and scholarly pursuits, language and folklore.

A first-time reader of McKinley might marvel at the amount of exposition in this novel. However, during the drafting process, McKinley decided to split Pegasus into two separate novels. And therein lies my only problem with the book…that it’s two books and not one, and only the first book has been written.

My thoughts dash back and forth much like this:

Pegasus is 400 pages of mostly exposition.
But the history and culture McKinley creates are so facinating, that I could barely put the book down.
But hardly anything major happened until those last 100 pages of the book.
Number one, that’s not entirely true. Fthoom’s treachery is apparent from the beginning, and his power and political clout frustrated you throughout the book. Besides, if you were so bored for the first 300 pages, how come you raced home from work every day to read?
Quite the opposite of bored, you!! The book was awesome, fascinating at every turn.
So why are you complaining?
Because I read 400 pages of beautiful prose and captivating detail that spun a marvelous tale of friendship and the struggle to find cultural understanding between two unique peoples, only to discover that the novel ends in such a suspenseful, heart-rending cliff-hanger that I want to pull out my hair, travel into the future, find the second novel in the Pegasus duo, and finally finally learn the fates of Ebon and Sylvii, and the Pegasi and the Alliance. *and breathe* That’s why.
Fair enough, now continue with your review please…

One of my favorite aspects of Pegasus is the prevalence of surprisingly grown-up themes throughout this Young Adult fantasy novel. Although the humans love the Pegasi, these creatures are so completely alien that, even after centuries of coexistance, the humans still experience a fair amount of xenophobia towards the Pegasi. Many of the customs developed by the humans keep the Pegasi at arms length. The amount of awkward formality directed towards the Pegasi highlights the humans’ continued discomfort around these startling beings. As I read I couldn’t help but be reminded of modern day race relations or peace talks between peoples who are always at odds. Maybe I’m strange for drawing similarities between a fantasy novel and current events, but there is a small part of me that wonders if McKinley, on some subconscious level, has parabolically written this novel as a larger social commentary.

Further supporting this queer theory of mine is this: Because of the humans’ general discomfort with the Pegasi, their society is susceptible to fear-mongering from one of the most powerful political machines, the Magician’s Guild. Especially convincing in his arguments against Ebon and Sylvii’s association is Fthoom, the most influential member of the Magician’s Guild. His grassroots efforts to undermine the special friendship between Sylvii and Ebon slowly gains followers until it erupts in a fervor of dissent as the country prepares itself to go to war.

Permit me a sidebar here. Fthoom is a fantastic name for this character. To me, it sounds like an explosive boom or the combustion of flame, a perfect parallel to Fthoom’s personality. He is quick to temper, prone to outbursts, incendiary in his actions. His small fires of doubt and anger are lit in one place, then spread to another until there is a raging wild fire of discontent. He is pompous and arrogant, and what’s a raging wild fire if not brazen? And Fthoom is ambitious beyond belief; all-in-all a fantasticly, near-perfect villian.

Pegasus leaves so many unanswered questions: What happens to Ebon and Sylvii? How on Earth can they defeat Fthoom? How can the humans triumph over the assailing armies whose only mission seems to be the destruction of the Pegasi? Did Redfora and Oraan exist? What truths will be revealed when Sylvii drinks from her vial of water from the Dreaming Sea? Why did the Sword recognize Sylvii as it had her brother, the heir?

AUGH! I can absolutely not wait for the next book.

But woe is me, McKinley (from what I infer from her blog) is in the earlier stages of the Peg II draft and thus the second novel won’t be released within my ideal timeframe. But despite the anticipated wait for Peg II, I highly highly recommend Pegasus to you, dear reader. In the meantime, I will have to satisfy myself with this ARC and the published version of Peg I when it arrives in bookstores this November.