Saturday, November 8, 2008

Cannonball Read #8: A Lion Among Men, by Gregory Maguire

This was my election night reading...I went to the Coop before meeting round of friends number one, and after spending some time liberally distributing puddles of drool throughout the store, I picked up A Lion Among Men, the third book in the Wicked series that began with the titular book and proceeded through Son of a Witch, the story of the Wicked Witch of the West's "son." (Side note: Every time I go to the Coop, I revisit several conclusions. First, there's probably no way I'll be able to read everything in the world, and I can't afford to waltz into the Coop and say "I'll take one of everything, please," but the best solution is probably to find some kind of job where I can do nothing but read. Secondly, I desperately wish Hogwarts was real, but the Coop is close enough. Third, I should not enter bookstores unsupervised, especially if they look like Hogwarts.)

For those not familiar, Gregory Maguire takes classic fairytales and revisits them, often from the ostensible bad guys' point of view...Wicked was the Wicked Witch of the West's backstory and point of view on the Wizard of Oz stories, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was Cinderella from one of the stepsisters' side of things, Mirror, Mirror was the behind the scenes story of Snow White. I still have yet to be disappointed in any of his books. When I was a kid, my parents and grandmother had these great old copies of the original Oz books; most people have read or seen The Wizard of Oz, but I don't think many people realize there were a lot of books featuring L. Frank Baum's Oz, and all of them are brilliantly colored, incredibly creative stories. My favorite was Rinkitink of Oz, and I'd just like to note here that I owe my parents and grandparents big time for exposing me to all kinds of weird stuff that was probably way above my maturity level but that made me work to get it. Maguire's writing really hearkens back to Baum's style, and every story he produces demonstrates this amazingly deep knowledge of the stories he tackles. Moreover, Maguire writes the way I wish I could get away with writing for people today. Not only is his work devoid of the niggling grammatical errors that frequently pop up in modern literature and make me crazy, but the writing demands that you think on a higher level, so that when he employs the true usage of "awesome," it feels natural and the meaning is crystal clear. It's stunning, and I hope to see much much more from him.

This particular effort shows us the Cowardly Lion himself, whose name is Brrr, on a mission to find out information about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch. While superficially it's about his reporting and search for information, it wouldn't be a Maguire book if it didn't tackle significantly heavier themes. As is the case throughout the series, the question of fate is constantly in play, and it is in this book that it's most directly tackled. The Lion has come to talk with a character from the previous books, a maunt named Yackle, whose previous appearances have shown her to be intrically involved in the life of Elphaba. While there is much said about the fate of Elphaba, Brrr's own history comes into play as a similarly telling statement on the subject. Maguire has handled the fact that some animals talk and some do not in Baum's original work to make a statement on prejudice and to discuss what really makes someone or something worthy of respect and care. In Wicked, signifcant time is spent discussing how all animals are forced to ride in caged, segregated cars on trains, etc., and in this book, we see for the first time how one of the Animals (capitalization is used to denote sentience) came to develop speech and a higher mental operation. It's fascinating, and the depth of Maguire's story is remarkable as always.
I believe that the best books are the ones that show us how we are. I reread A Clockwork Orange recently, and thought of this idea then, too...the most chilling thing for me in that book is not just the violence, not just the calm rationale that Alex uses to describe and defend his actions, but how the supposed good guys unwittingly use much of the same horrible tactics to combat what they see as dangerous, but without thinking about it or making a logical case for it. Maguire's books are beautiful stories, yes, but eventually there comes a point where a faint echo rings back of something in your life or society at large, and the book just opens up in front of you, and you begin reading it in a whole new light. That's what makes these books so excellent, and that's what makes great books, period.
309 pages

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