Dealing with Dragons

I discovered Patricia C. Wrede when I was ten or eleven years old after stumbling upon Dealing with Dragons on the bookstore shelf. Having recently started reading YA fantasy novels (aka having only read Tamora Pierce), Wrede represented a lighter, wittier strand of fantasy that made her books a quickly-devoured delight and I was only sorry not to have more of them. This particular series features a strong female lead named Princess Cimorene (well, leads if one counts Kazul, the female dragon) who is not interested in limiting her talents to "what princesses are supposed to do," and so Cimorene takes control of her own future. Yes, the storylines feature wizards and dragons, but I sincerely believe that it's heroines like Cimorene that help teach young girls to grow up as strong women, deciphering their own desires without simply submitting to what is expected of them.

Cimorene is the seventh and youngest daughter of the King and Queen of Linderwall and her parents are more than a little frustrated with her. Her six older sisters are blonde and just the perfect height so they might gaze adoringly up at a prince through their long eyelashes. Cimorene is tall, black-haired, and more than a little headstrong. She wants nothing to do with the boring subjects normally taught to princesses (lots of classes on etiquette, dancing, embroidery, and the proper reactions for every eventuality that might befall a princess... particularly how loud one should scream when being abducted by giants and so forth). Cimorene, instead, manages to bully a succession of court figures into giving her lessons in fencing, cooking, magic, juggling, and Latin (each new subject picked up when her father discovers one and puts an end to it). At 16, she begs her fairy godmother to do something about this situation and while her godmother tells Cimorene that her feelings on the matter are all just a phase that she'll grow out of, the King and Queen decide that it's time to just have Cimorene properly wed and out of their hair. So they travel to another kingdom on the pretense of attending a tournament and Cimorene discovers the engagement plot just in time. After trying to convince the prince Therandil (a handsome but dim fellow) to call off the engagement, Cimorene finds herself without any other recourse than to take off and follow the directions from a talking frog (not an enchanted prince, mind, just a frog who'd picked up enough chatter from enchanted princes) to the Mountains of Morning and some individuals who might be inclined to help her.

Those individuals turn out to be dragons and after explaining her situation, Cimorene finds herself taken on by the dragon Kazul as her captive princess. As Kazul's princess, Cimorene is responsible for some cooking, library organization, and treasure sorting, which all sounds much more interesting to Cimorene than any class she was assigned to take to be a regular princess. Kazul, thankfully, is a level-headed and pleasant dragon and so Cimorene finds herself quite happy with her situation... though it isn't long before the knights start showing up. Her parents did the proper and expected thing in this situation (naturally) after learning their daughter is in the custody of a dragon and offered up a reward of half the kingdom to the prince or knight who could rescue their daughter. Cimorene is a bit impressed that her parents would bother, but nonetheless, she shooes off a number of knights and princes before Therandil himself makes an appearance. Seeing as he feels he's particularly expected to rescue her, it takes quite a while for Cimorene to get rid of him, though he continues to pop back up and insist upon his duty. Meanwhile, Cimorene's own duties do not keep her from noticing a increasing number of wizards lurking about the Mountains of Morning. After one of Kazul's friends, the witch Morwen, suggests that a simple an unsuspicious sign (such as "Road Washed Out") will at least help to stem the flood of knights, Cimorene ventures out with her sign and encounters the wizard Zemenar who attempts to trick Cimorene into thinking that she needs rescuing after he makes part of her thin mountain pathway disappear. Cimorene does not fall for this, but does learn to be particularly suspicious of wizards and so reports her encounter to Kazul. Kazul explains to Cimorene that wizards are always a bit troublesome for dragons, as they cannot generate magic, but rather, they absorb it from magical places (like the Enchanted Forest) or creatures (like dragons). Currently, the wizards were arguing with the dragons about their access to the Caves of Fire and Night, a magical set of caves that contained a great number of secrets which the wizards wish to study further but the dragons control.

The plot between dragons and wizards thickens when Cimorene and her friend Alianora (also the princess of a dragon) are out gathering herbs and come upon a wizard gathering dragonsbane. Between the dragonsbane, trials for a new king of the dragons, and a stone prince discovered in the Caves of Fire and Night, Cimorene has her hands full if she wishes to thwart whatever plans are afoot for the wizards to gain the upper hand in their disputes with the dragons. By being a quick learner and using her wits, Cimorene succeeds in all her endeavors and proves that by seeking out a life that actually suits her, she can live "happily ever after" in her own fashion.

Cimorene is, indeed, a fantastic heroine. Her thirst for knowledge inspires one to be a bit of a Renaissance woman while her cleverness allows her to take advantage of the feather-brained princess stereotype more than once so she can weasel information out of wizards and dragons alike. Clearly, she is no dumb bunny. Cimorene essentially takes the advice given to princes -- that if you cannot solve something by alerting others, then you have to do it yourself -- and proves herself worthy of tackling any challenge, even thwarting the plans of a dragon to steal the throne and the plans of wizards to steal power. One of the great features of this book is the fact that Cimorene is allowed to stand on her own. She has the help of friends, yes, but she most certainly does not need a prince to assist her. Indeed, the two main princes in the book (Therandil and the stone prince) are very neatly matched off to other princesses by Cimorene's doing and her only fear at the end is that she won't be able to keep her job of being Kazul's princess. (As an adult reading this novel, one finds this a bit unsettling in and of itself... a woman's fear that her efficiency nullifies her position and she will not be granted a higher role, even though she's proved her competency.) There's a lovely blend between teamwork and leadership which illustrates that just as a female dragon can be King, so a princess can be a true leader.

The entire Enchanted Forest Chronicles is a charming series, featuring Cimorene and the family she comes to build. Cimorene, after proving her own abilities to do things without a man, does indeed have the chance to find a real partner in a match of equals. The fourth book in the series was actually written and published first -- the story of Cimorene's son -- and was revised in 1995 to better align with the other books and situate it as fourth in the series. Otherwise, we certainly get more of certain characters introduced in the first book -- namely, the wizards, Kazul, Morwen, and her cats. If you have a young reader in need of some fun fantasy, then I think boys and girls alike would enjoy this (though the series would seem to have particular appeal for girls). They're predictable in the sense that you know things will likely turn out well, but Wrede's skills as a storyteller ensure that you probably won't be able to guess the path that leads you there, and so you're guaranteed to be amused. Dealing with Dragons will always have a particular place of honor, as I think it's the best of the four, particularly when it comes to crafting a strong heroine with the strength to determine her own path in life. The other books become wonderful chapters in her life and in the lives of her family, but this will always feel like the one that started it all for me.


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Considered to be one of the best spy thrillers of the modern age, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the the novel that put John le Carré's on the best-seller list (and essentially he's there to stay. Given this fantastic piece, it is well-deserved. Published in 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was le Carré's third novel, but the first espionage thriller of its kind -- namely, the first with the painfully realistic notion that there is no "good" or "bad" side in a conflict and no one is particularly moral or just when it might come at the expense of victory.

Alec Leamas is a burned-out English spy enduring his final mission so that he might "come in from the cold" and retire after a long career in the British Secret Intelligence Service. This chance comes shortly after Leamas's stint as commander of the West Berlin office where he witnessed his last decent agent get shot trying to escape East Berlin. Now, his job is to destroy his own life and give the illusion of a washed-up agent ill-used by his superiors so that he might appear to be a man who's very willing to defect to the East German Communists and sell them information. Leamas is a pro and he plays his role well -- except he does what it seems like every spy does... he gets involved with a girl. Liz Gold is a young Jewish woman who works at a library, a registered Communist who falls hard for Leamas, even though he tries to push her away (though he doesn't try very hard). Whether Leamas falls in love with Liz or simply develops an affection for her, no one should be too surprised if Liz becomes a liability in the high-stakes game that he's playing. Before diving headfirst into his dealings with the East German Communists, he makes Liz promise to not try and find him and similarly asks his British superiors to leave her alone. Yeah. Sure.

To say too much about the plot would be criminal, so I'll simply note that it's all quite worth reading. It's so refreshing to find a novel where things move quickly and the author doesn't pander to a slow audience. I actually wondered at the beginning of the book if I was going to be quick enough to follow along with everything, particularly considering my Cold War knowledge is a bit rusty, but it turned out I had everything I needed to know. The thing that's fascinating now is to be familiar with the jaded concept that neither side is "right" in a conflict, but to see the origin of this idea in the novel that best brought it to light in terms of the modern age. Clearly, this is no James Bond novel where he easily bests the bad guys in the name of Queen and country while sleeping with sexy women and drinking martinis. Leamas is a grizzled case who's been in the field for much too long and he's beyond disillusioned with it all... and yet still, he might retain his own understanding of honor. He's lived a cover for so long that who knows what is "true" and it takes a woman from the outside to prove that not everything is about lies and subterfuge... but such a perspective can hardly survive the onslaught of underhanded dealings. There is, indeed, a real villain in this story, but an individual's blackened soul doesn't necessarily represent an entire country, particularly when the only other true idealist with a good dream to improve the lives of his people is on the exact same side. Leamas, despite being disillusioned with it all, still does seem to have some moral understanding and perhaps that's what draws him to naive Liz.

My book club read this at the suggestion of a member who is writing her own spy novel and so has been immersing herself in fiction and non-fiction that pertains to the topic as research. Perhaps an unlikely choice, it made for some great discussion as we dissected the motives of various characters and sighed over just how annoying Liz was. (Seriously, it's painful how useless and frustrating she was in the face of everything.) There was a movie made of this novel that a few of us had seen, though I personally casted Jeremy Irons as Leamas as I read the book and pictured everything playing out. So much of this spy work is about calculation, planning, and nervous execution. Whenever physical force is used, it's rarely flashy and frequently fails in its objective. It's certainly not the spy thriller that we're all familiar with, but that only makes it more interesting.

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, a former MI5 and MI6 employee who was very familiar with the intelligence game. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was so successful that it enabled Cornwell to quit MI6 and start writing full time. His first two novels featured the character George Smiley, who makes a brief appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as having a role in the British side of this plan (though not an official Circus agent, supposedly), and Smiley became one of le Carré's leading protagonists. The author calls The Spy Who Came in from the Cold one of his best four novels and it's quite easy to see why. Despite having the appearance of a jaded man and a lone wolf, Leamas is an incredibly sympathetic hero. Before reading this, I had kind of passed over le Carré as a writer whose work wasn't quite my style, but such intelligent writing about the spy game is fascinating for any smart reader with the desire to be told a twisted and complicated story. I already have my eye on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a future read for when I want to dive into le Carré once more... though I certainly hope that future female characters are a bit less irritating than poor Liz or I'll be quickly disappointed.


Out of Africa

For ages, this had been on my list of "books I should've read by now" list, citing that many friends had studied this in school and I felt left out of the party. So I convinced the girls in my book club (all of whom had also missed out on this particular bandwagon) that we should correct this lapse... and... well... I'm glad we did? Ultimately, not many people were all that pleased with Out of Africa, myself included, but it does, at least, provide a detailed glimpse at a bygone world. The reason for its presence on so many school reading lists, however, has got to be the whole "written by a woman" and "about Africa" qualifications, because the paternalistic racism and selective honesty on the part of the author is not exactly something that schools should be promoting to students who aren't old enough to recognize this.

Karen Blixen published Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen in 1937 (Dinesen was her maiden name, though I have yet to figure out where the Isak came from). The events in the book take place over seventeen years -- from her arrival in Africa (to marry her second cousin, the Swedish Baron Bror Von Blixen-Finecke) in 1913 to her departure following the failure of her coffee plantation in 1931. If you finish reading Out of Africa and then read the Wikipedia blurb on Karen Blixen's life, you'll get a little angry. Why? Well, to start with, the Wikipedia blurb shows that Blixen actually had an interesting life, she just chose not to write about any of those bits. (Syphilis! Engaged to her second-cousin after failing to win his brother! Unfaithful husband! Divorce and retaining control of the plantation! Affair with Denys Finch-Hatton! Creating a personal legend of her own life!) In any case, it's a bit frustrating to read a "memoir" when very little of that comes into play. She focuses entirely on her relationship with Africa... so you'd think you might get a little of the husband or the lover, but no -- she barely mentions her husband at all and Denys is simply depicted as a friend.

The book doesn't follow much linear style, except in the fifth and final part where the coffee plantation fails and so Blixen sells it off and leaves Africa. Instead, it's comprised of a number of anecdotes about her life, the farm, and the people and animals on it. With just the hint of the title, the reader knows that everything cannot end well and that the author will be leaving Africa, but that might not be enough to hint at the elegiac tone which suffuses the entire work. It's melancholy and full of longing, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere. Blixen is writing about an Africa that no longer exists, a colonialist occupation on its last legs that is still struggling for elegance and grandeur in a land where grandeur is not high on the priority list (and, thankfully, not high on Blixen's). The Natives that populate the country aren't slaves and Blixen is quite kind to them, but the amount of condescension that radiates from her work is a bit mind-boggling. There are many ways to justify this and soften the blow, but the racism is inescapable. Clearly, Blixen wouldn't call herself a racist and she repeatedly calls many Natives her "friends," but that really isn't the relationship that's described Given the time period and the environment, it's not terribly surprising and her attitude might even have been seen as a bit progressive in comparison to others, but it's still there. It's the idea of looking upon the Natives as lesser creatures who need to be educated, adjusted, and changed. She might have some form of nostalgia for their way of life (and even tries to help it struggle on at times), but her perspective is the vision of someone who knows it will not last and it's probably for their own good that it not. Entire groups of people are lumped together in her descriptions of their temperament and outlook as she tries to explain to a European (or Western) audience exactly what these people are like and it's the rare individual that is singled out for any defining characteristics. There were animals that were described with greater detail than any human individuals. In general, her European focus on work, schedule, and order causes her to paint the Natives as lazy and ignorant, with the occasional admission some of them are clever and that the general populace might have something going for them that the average European has lost. There are a few instances where the activities of the Natives versus those of the Europeans are drawn into stark contrast -- particularly as it concerns justice, penance, and, apparently, logic. There's even the occasional time that she sides with the Native's perspective (though more often than not, she presents it to the reader as an oddity to puzzle or chuckle over). It isn't that she believes them incapable of learning how to do things... but again, here comes the paternalistic attitude. At one point, she even suggests that they might never develop the same attitude towards technology (her examples of this are airplanes and automobiles, for perspective) because they themselves never developed these things. They went from zero to sixty and as a result will never feel the way that others do whose civilizations developed these wonders. The issue I have here is not that they will have different ideas, but that her focus is on how they will never develop a specific attitude, as though there's only one good viewpoint here to which one can aspire. It's all so unfortunate, as Blixen clearly loves the land and the people, but I fear that her love is grounded in a system that could not endure, and therefore is easy to embrace for those who relish a tragic and doomed love.

Given the fact that the book is comprised of incidents and jumps around a bit, I found this terribly easy to set down after reading a few pages and rather hard to pick up again. Perhaps, too, I might have been more inclined to read things if I felt that Blixen weren't deliberately leaving out elements of her daily life. The complete absence of her husband is a gaping hole and while it does lend her the image of doing everything on her own, she doesn't go into enough detail about her own life to justify the responsibility. One also feels that Blixen's narrative is set up so she can pick and choose stories based on what she wishes to convey about this lost time and place... and there's the distinct sense that she isn't always being entirely honest. I don't even necessarily mean her real relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton (because if one wishes to conceal a relationship, that's one's own business)... but the way her narrative gravitated towards him and his death would allow even a child in school to believe that all Blixen's cards weren't on the table. Whether it was that some things were too painful to dwell on or that they didn't fit into her particular image of her time there, it's enough to drive one to Wikipedia to fill in the gaps.

I wouldn't like to give the impression that my entire experience with Out of Africa was totally negative. Her writing style is quite interesting (though Danish, Blixen wrote in English) and I'm not sure if it's the fact that English isn't her native language which gives everything a detached, matter-of-fact tone to it, or if she's adopting it to seem like a more justified observer of human nature. When I looked up discussion questions for the book, many focused on the idea of finding one's self, but no one in my book club actually thought the book was terribly concerned about Blixen "finding" herself. Yes, she was changed by her experiences in Africa, but without seeing any trajectory of self, it was hard to tell just how changed she ultimately had been. It is, however, really quite fascinating to read the account of this time period, if only because there's always some strange nostalgia for bygone days that feature this twisted mix of disparate wealth and social classes. I wouldn't necessarily say that Blixen was whole-heartedly in favor of colonialism, but given the choice between the way things were and the way things became, she'd have preserved the system just as it was. There's never really a thought to whether the Natives would be better off without the Europeans' interference. Everything about the work seems to be looking back without any desire to look forward, which is really quite a shame.

So I am pleased that I slogged my way through and I do recognize that Africa meant something special to Karen Blixen, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be endorsing this for school reading and discussion unless the kids are old enough to understand that these opinions about Native peoples aren't quite ideal. Some of the prose is lovely indeed and once in a while, Blixen succeeded in making me long for to sit on a veranda, surrounded by African scenery, but it was really only the landscape that inspired longing... and perhaps the wish that the Europeans hadn't been quite so hasty to claim the world as their own and displace the original inhabitants for their selfish gain. Better a memoir of the time be preserved than the system it discusses, and at least it's an account to remind us of the many mistakes in our world's history. If you're reading this to discuss with others, it could be quite worth it, but I'll not recommend that anyone trudge through this on their own. I feel a bit terrible for saying so when the book in question is often called a classic, but so it goes.