Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
January 2009

Title: Fairest (audiobook)
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Publisher: Full Cast Audio
EAN: 9781934180082

Bruce Coville gushed to me about the Full Cast Audio production of Gail Carson Levine's Fairest over the second-best barbeque sandwich he's ever eaten. "It was the most ambitious, most difficult thing we've ever done," he said between bites of his warm cheese muffin. I had heard many rumors about it already.

In Fairest, Levine loosely retells the story of Snow White. Our heroine, Aza, is the epitome of un-fair, so far from beautiful in her own eyes that she eschews mirrors and despises the patrons of the inn where she works who stare and make rude comments. But Aza has the most amazing voice -- a huge attribute in a land where people sing as often as they breathe. Levine had to test her poetic prowess: as a book, Fairest was chock-full of lyrics.

As an audio production, Todd Hobin, the director, went a step further than the normal Full Cast pomp and circumstance and actually composed music for all of the songs Levine had included in the text. The effect was essentially an eight-hour Broadway musical with no stage. I'm a huge fan of clever, Cole Porter-style musical lyrics. Unfortunately, the singing in Fairest tended to be conversational, non-rhyming, and operatic . . . but it was still an event to be heard.

Sarah Naughton both read and sang the part of Aza, breathing beautiful life into Levine's character. Aza's family, Queen Ivi, Prince Ijori . . . I would go so far as to say there was not a character whose voice I didn't like. This Full Cast was exceptionally well-cast. The only disagreements I had with Fairest were issues not with the performance but with the story -- a new plot device of Levine's making, and one inherent in the fairy tale itself.

Let's start with this ridiculous idea of true love, shall we? Now, I'm the first person who will jump on the bandwagon and cheer for the hero and heroine to fall in love and live happily ever after. Chick flick? BRING THEM ON. I enjoy fiction as my escape from reality, and those are the endings I like to see.

I admit I have issues when "the prince/king sees a pretty girl, falls for her, and asks her to marry him" means he will always be chivalrous and trustworthy and stand behind her and do whatever is in his true love's best interest. It's a failing inherent with the fairy tale -- a failing that sadly serves to keep our hero depthless and uncomplicated.

Once Prince Ijori falls for Aza, we never question that the world would be otherwise, and neither does he. He loves her for who she is, not what he sees. That's the way the world should be, right? But [SPOILER ALERT] when the king is confronted with his queen's missteps, he exiles himself from his beloved kingdom in order to be with her. Okay, I get that this is not reality, but to me, that's not even realistic. And it willingly perpetuates the Prince Charming mythos every teenage girl with self-esteem issues (that's what, 95% of them?) grabs onto and wishes for every night on stars that will still be shining even after her precious dreams are shattered.

I also believe that Queen Ivi's punishment was a bit too harsh for her crime. Yes, she screwed up. She made some very bad choices. But other than being slightly silly, shallow, and a bit vain (if you know a teenage girl who's not, please buy her flowers), Ivi was not at heart a bad person. Her intentions were never overtly malicious -- she was a stranger in a strange land, and adapted by making her surroundings conform to what she was used to, regardless of the land's customs. We've all screwed up; we've all made bad decisions no matter how old we are (I'm sure I'll make a few more bad decisions before my next birthday). I would have liked to have seen Ivi embraced and educated, as opposed to being so severely punished for her ignorance.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, these items are terribly trivial. Fairest is a fantastic listen, and fun for the whole family. And if you happen to play these CDs on a car trip with your own teenage girls, be sure to ask them what they think.

Title: Fool
Author: Christopher Moore
Publisher: William Morrow
EAN: 9780060590314

"WARNING: THIS IS A BAWDY TALE." So spake the brown-paper wrapping that covered my review copy of Fool, humorist Christopher Moore's latest offering. It went on to describe exactly what it meant, at length, just to be sure I knew exactly what I was getting into once I tore that wrapper off. And boy, let me tell you what -- it wasn't lying.

The titular fool is our main character, Pocket, orphan child raised by nuns who is now official court jester to King Lear (and oversexed consort of all Lear's daughters). His blatant honesty and cutting wit will make you bark laughing uncontrollably at random intervals throughout the book. He is both cursed and saved by that honesty and wit throughout his adventures, and with these skills Pocket unwittingly weaves the fate of the kingdom as the story of King Lear unfolds.

Tom Stoppard's Academy Award-winning film Shakespeare in Love is to Romeo and Juliet what Fool is to King Lear. One only needs a passing grade in high school English to appreciate the humor (and hat-tipping to other plays by the Bard) woven through the text, but the more intimate the reader is with the subject matter, the more pleasure might be derived from this book. Conversely, readers who have finished Fool (according to Moore's afterword) often feel compelled to reacquaint themselves with the original King Lear in an effort to enhance their insight -- a task which even the author himself does not recommend. (You may recall that King Lear is not a comedy. You may not recall that the Fool in Lear disappears in the third act and is never seen again.)

Do not be discouraged: if you're not an expert on Lear (as I'm certainly not), there is enough crass lewdness in Fool to whet your appetite. Which is to say: no. It is very definitely not for kids . . . unless your goal is to teach them anatomy, sex education, out-of-wedlock children, and creative alternative means of swearing (including my new favorite word, which modesty forbids me to share with you). Moore's bawdy tale is, however, passionately true to the language, mood, and sensibilities of Shakespeare's England. He tells it with the casual ease of a Groundling at the Globe awaiting curtain call, never once sounding pompous or forced. It's all in good fun.

What impressed me most about Fool was Moore's consistent voice from the very first page to the very last. So very often sketch comedy falls flat after only a few pages or chapters; I laughed and blushed throughout this entire book, but I was never disappointed. When I was done I clapped my hands in applause and resisted giving it a standing ovation. As bawdy a tale as Fool is (and never claims to be otherwise), it is also a smart tale. Christopher Moore proves himself to be a brilliant author, and a comedic virtuoso.

Read more by Alethea Kontis

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