Magical books I read in October 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

If I look back and think about the most memorable, inspiring pieces of literature I consumed last month, four books clearly come to mind. Each one explores parallel realities (or supernatural realms) and the magical creatures and animals that inhabit these universes. Naturally, three of the books were written for children.

Magical books I read in October 2011

The first two are out-of-print children’s books written in the 1970s by American author Tomie de Paola. I tracked down copies of these short stories after my dad visited Oregon in September and helped me remember a few books he used to read to my sister and me. When Everyone Was Fast Asleep (1976) and the more obscure Songs of the Fog Maiden (1979) both feature the magical, singing Fog Maiden and her blue cat Token. These two characters visit the children of Earth at night and bring them enchanting, fantastical experiences:

When everyone was fast asleep, the Fog Maiden sent Token to wake us up. And we slid through the curtains into the night. We floated across the grass, dancing on the dew, and met the elf horse. We all sang, “Tra la, tra la, too lay, too lay, hop-a-doodle, hip-a-doodle, flip-a-doodle day.” Down the road we went, counting moons until we came to the troll house, but we were not afraid. We ate hot buttered bread and drank warm milk with honey, and dressed for the ball at the palace. The crocodiles danced a quadrille and the peacocks waltzed with doves and we all sang, “Tra la, tra la, too lay, too lay, hop-a-doodle, hip-a-doodle, flip-a-doodle day.” When the king and queen arrived, the play began. The lion roared while the gypsy slept, and the princess was saved by the sand serpent. The night was over and the Fog Maiden came to cover everything with her dress. She picked us up and floated over the trees to our very own window, where she tucked us into our beds and kissed us asleep.

Now if that isn’t an alien abduction story, I don’t know what is. You miss some context without the illustrations, but the premise of When Everyone Was Fast Asleep is that a large-eyed animal (or therianthrope) peers into your bedroom window at night and whisks you away to an alternate, overwhelming realm of anthropomorphic entities.

(Note: I have illustrated the Fog Maiden and Token the Cat as 8-bit characters for Mascot Mashup, my daily pixel art project; they are scheduled to appear on November 10 and 11.)

The third book, Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind (2007) by Graham Hancock, is about the origins of art, religious ideas, consciousness-altering agents and consciousness itself (and ultimately how these might tie into modern conceptions of fairies, elves, angels, UFOs, alien abductions, DMT, DNA and the spirit world):

Less than 50,000 years ago mankind had no art, no religion, no sophisticated symbolism, no innovative thinking. Then, in a dramatic and electrifying change, described by scientists as “the greatest riddle in human history,” all the skills and qualities that we value most highly in ourselves appeared already fully formed, as though bestowed on us by hidden powers. In Supernatural Graham Hancock sets out to investigate this mysterious “before-and-after moment” and to discover the truth about the influences that gave birth to the modern human mind.

Hancock’s quest takes him on a detective journey from the stunningly beautiful painted caves of prehistoric France, Spain, and Italy to rock shelters in the mountains of South Africa, where he finds extraordinary Stone Age art. He uncovers clues that lead him to the depths of the Amazon rainforest to drink the powerful hallucinogen Ayahuasca with shamans, whose paintings contain images of “supernatural beings” identical to the animal-human hybrids depicted in prehistoric caves. Hallucinogens such as mescaline also produce visionary encounters with exactly the same beings. Scientists at the cutting edge of consciousness research have begun to consider the possibility that such hallucinations may be real perceptions of other “dimensions.”

More than any other book I’ve read, Supernatural almost unifies (or, at least, neatly gathers) cross-cultural supernatural and paranormal experiences throughout human history. There is much to think about. You might have an existential crisis while reading this book. I highly recommend it.

The fourth book, Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I (2011), is “a spellbinding tale full of wonder, danger, and magic that juxtaposes the thrill of a secret world and modern city life. Original and fresh yet steeped in classic fantasy, this is a novel that could have only come from the imagination of Colin Meloy, celebrated for his inventive and fantastic storytelling as the lead singer of The Decemberists. With dozens of intricate and beautiful illustrations by award-winning artist Carson Ellis, Wildwood is truly a new classic for the twenty-first century.”

I’ll admit that I was first interested in Wildwood because I am a fan of The Decemberists—and because Colin Meloy and his wife Carson Ellis live in Portland, Oregon (which is also the geographic setting for the book). Despite being written for adolescent children, I quite enjoyed Meloy’s esoteric, archaic vocabulary and his antique-weaponry aesthetic (not unlike his quirky songs). Plus there are delightful warring factions of talking forest animals! With 560 sparse pages, it is a fast read (it only took me six hours or so to finish it). Definitely worth the time.

I need to remember to read bizarre children’s books more often. For now, it is time to appreciate the rest of the Day of the Dead. I will eat tamales and drink Mexican hot chocolate.

P.S. I visit How to be a Retronaut regularly and these are some recent posts that inspired me: Nuclear Bunker Mannequins (a secret bunker in England), The Invisible Mother (creepy moms hiding under blankets in old photos), Tunnels of the River Fleet (the largest of London’s subterranean rivers), Rephotographing Budapest (perfect overlay of modern color photos on black & white ones), Twin Peaks: The Last Days (I miss that show) and Video Games Then and Now (I prefer a primitive 8-bit aesthetic).

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