Catherynne M. Valente

Now for Part 2 of my two-part squee series. Despite her weirdly fanficcy name, Catherynne M. Valente is possibly my favorite modern author not just because she’s so talented, but because she’s so prolific. I’m not even halfway through her huge catalogue, and every single thing is equally as good as everything else, no matter when she wrote it. It’s hard to believe she’s just one person; I can’t imagine being this good of a storyteller for this long with apparently zero fuckups.

Valente’s main genre is mythofantasy. Her works have tackled Christian, Arab, Russian, Japanese, Nordic, and a whole bunch of other mythologies with grace, nuance, and aplomb. She’s written for children and adults and always manages to say things that I need to hear when I’m reading her work. If someone wanted my worldview summed up in one author, I’d direct them to Valente.

I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything but gush about these books but oh well.

Also, if you do nothing else with this post, read The Refrigerator Monologues. It’s a series of vignettes about the fridged girlfriends of superheroes and it is this blog condensed into novella form.

Fairyland (Series, 5 books)

The Fairyland series is five children’s books, starting with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. All the books have similarly long titles I’m not going to list. The five books weave a beautiful, heartfelt story of love, loss, and coming of age. They’re about finding where we belong and the pleasure and pain we feel as we transition from childhood to adulthood. About not fitting in and loving books and small yappy dogs and heartbreak and the worst things not being forever. They’re also about womanhood, and overcoming the assumptions we make of stories about young girls finding their way home.

More literally, the series is about a girl named September, who bores of her life on a Midwestern farm, and the wish she makes that whisks her away to a magical world.

With the exception of Radiance, I think this was the piece of Valente’s work that hit me the most personally. It probably doesn’t help that I read them while I was in partial hospitalization last year and so every single time there was a lesson about overcoming hard things I was like OH GOD THANK YOU BOOK JESUS.

You can tell from all her work that Valente is an animal lover, but this is the series where she really gets to have fun with it. I still get all feelsy when I think about the small dog “who couldn’t make anything better but would never stop trying.”

Anyway it’s just a beautiful story for children and adults that tackles really complex themes ranging from consent and virginity fetishization to war and injury to what it’s like to grow apart from your parents as you transition from childhood to adulthood. Everyone should read them all now and forever.

Palimpsest

You know how when you show someone The Room for the first time and you have to explain that it’s not porn over and over for the first half hour because it opens with three sex scenes in a row but it’s really not porn in any way, shape, or form? This book is not porn in any way, shape or form — it’s not even about sex, somehow — but it still has like, really poetic graphic descriptions of blowjobs? It’s a phenomenally weird book in the best possible way but also I would never, ever want anyone ever to read it over my shoulder.

Palimpsest is about a secret world that you can only access via a sex act with someone who has been there. People who’ve been there are identifiable by black, tattoo-like markings. The first time you go, you’re spiritually bonded to three other people who are also first-timers. The story follows the journey of one group of four as they explore the surreal city and, eventually, try to figure out how to go there for good.

As I said, Valente writes a lot of mythofantasy, which by its nature is abstract, strange, and ethereal, but even with that I think this is the most surreal of her works. Everything about it is weird and out-there and disorienting. Interestingly, she doesn’t go the route of making the real-world mundane and bland while the fantasy world is surreal — the descriptions of the quartet’s everyday lives are just as dreamlike as their dreams.

Also it was really good, which is not something I thought I’d ever say on this blog about a book that features sex parties in which a woman missing three fingers and covered head to toe in bee stings blows an old Italian divorcee.

The Glass Town Game

This may be my least favorite of Valente’s works, which is like a normal person amoung giants because it was still very cute and good and A++ do rec, but I felt its social commentary was a lot more waffling than she usually is and I found myself unsure what she was saying at points.

The Glass Town Game is a children’s book about the Bronte Sisters (and brother) as children, and is a fictionalized, fairy-tale style accounting of the real make-believe game the four siblings played as kids, which was actually called the Glass Town Game. Valente did her research into the four’s lives, personalities, and roles, and turned it into a wild fairytale of make-believe come to life. It’s stuffed to the gills with literary allusions, too, which I always enjoy.

The problems I had with it were: a) I didn’t understand why it stopped just short of condemning the brother, giving him a redemption even when he was objectively a terrible person who betrayed his family, almost to death, and deserved a bad ending and b) the book took great pains to villify Jane Austen and I’m not totally sure a) why or b) if it was Valente’s opinion or some nodnodwinkwink thing of the books? That whole subplot was just weird. But yeah, the brother thing… it looked like it was going to be a really biting criticism of masculinity, but then just kind of doubled back on it at the very end, which none of her other pieces do. Maybe she changed her mind because it was for kids? But this was never an issue in Fairyland, so idk.

Regardless, though, if ‘Bronte sisters as chilren in magical lands’ sounds like a thing you’d like, you will like this.

The Orphan’s Tales (Series, 2 books)

This is another one that’s tough to describe. It’s an Arabian-Nights style series of recursive story-in-story tales, the frame story of which is that an orphaned girl is ostracized because of the black marks around her eyes, but the marks are really tiny words, and the tales in the book are all written on her face. The frame story is told across two books of interrelated tales.

The tales themselves span everything from Nordic seawomen and polar bears to religious hypocricy and gender norms and just about everything in between. There are so many and they’ll all haunting and evocative. There’s a definite undercurrent of light horror to some of them, especially in the second book.

The really brilliant thing about them from a form standpoint is how even seemingly unrelated tales fill in gaps in the others. Like, you’ll hear in Book Two a character mentioned  in passing who was a main character back at the beginning of book one, but the mention-in-passing actually gives you a crazy detail that wasn’t vital to the original tale but answers key question about the character. Even when the individual tales end, they really continue, because right up until the last page details are getting filled in. And yet somehow the tales would stand on their own.

It’s not House of Leaves, but what it does with form is still incredibly impressive. Also it made me feel like I should finally read Arabian Nights, which I missed as an undergrad.

Six-Gun Snow White

This novella is a retelling of Snow White set in the Wild West and starring a a half-Native American woman who battles femininity, racial identity, and class mores. Also she’s a sharpshooter.

I don’t even know if there’s anything else to say.

Deathless

I’ve really wanted illhousen’s opinion on this ever since I first read it.

The background to this is, apparently, that Valente’s husband is Russian, and when her in-laws first told her the story of Koschei the Deathless, she couldn’t get past the question of why in the world he was in Marya Morevna’s basement, so this novel was an attempt to answer that question while also playing with the tropes of Eastern European/Russian myth. (Incidentally, as it turns out, the two MST3K episodes that were weird Polish folktale movies were a good grounding for this.)

It also takes a close look at communist-era poverty and exploitation as experienced by a young girl and her family, and the bleak desperation is captured very well. It’s the kind of book you end up picturing in black-and-white as you read because it’s just cold and snow and poor hungry people and the whole world seems to spiritually be lacking color. Which, of course, is why Marya ends up with Koschei in her basement.

This was, I think, the most slow to start of her books, but by the end I felt just as wrapped up in it as any of the others. It does follow the All Russian Lit Model of “You’re shit, we’re shit, everything’s shit, never try for a better world, because it doesn’t exist,” but I also think it leaves a smidge of room for some hope at the end, if not for Marya then for the reader, which in in a way just made it more depressing tbh.

The Habitation of the Blessed (Series, 3 books, one unpublished)

The worst thing about this series is that the last one doesn’t have a goddamn release date yet.

So apparently back in like the 1300s some letters surfaced from a ‘Prester John’ claiming that he’d found the holy land and it was full of mystical creatures. The books follow some monks who come upon more of his writings (they grow on trees), and as they transcribe the accounts of him, his wife, and their peers, they try to decide is the fantastic tale is true. This is a series that is heavily critical of organized religion, so if that’s your bag, here you go.

This is also another one that’s really hard to describe because it’s just so beautifully weird. The protagonist is a woman with no head whose breasts are eyeballs and St. Thomas is a tree who loves a fairy and there’s the fountain of youth but it’s gross and John rigs a lottery to become king and dead people are buried so they don’t die. But in context it all makes a wonderful sense unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

Of all the crazy things I loved about this book, oddly enough, the mental image that’s stayed with me is this throwaway line from Tree Thomas as he tells Prester John about his life, and he’s talking about Jesus, and how Jesus doesn’t understand why all these crazy miracles are happening and people are rising from the dead and why he has these powers because even with Mary’s explanation it just doesn’t sound real, and Thomas accidentally sees Jesus just sitting there staring at his hands like, ‘What the fuck is happening to me?’ and it was a really powerful, humanizing moment for perhaps the least humanized character is the history of Western fiction. Jesus as a person trying to come to terms with what his destiny is is just so cool and I kind of want a spinoff about that.

This is a bad description but man this is a hard book to describe outside of, “What if John’s letters were true?” (I feel sorry for the copywriter who had to do the promo materials…) I mean the books are plants and the guy eats them and then he’s a plant but it’s all rotting and the hairy woman with the tree is maybe eyetit lady and…

Radiance

Radiance. Radiance is just a beautiful novel about truth and life and finding your way and losing everything and whales. It’s definitely about whales and when I write my thesis on whale symbolism this and Dishonored will be my centerpieces.

It’s set in a retrofuturistic old Hollywood where we can cyberpunk-travel to all the corners of the solar system. It’s part drama, part mystery, part homage to art and storytelling. It also has some really effective horror elements of the never-show-the-monster variety. It’s what’s absent that’s so scary.

Anyway, the plot: Severin Unck is gone, and she may be dead or she may be alive or she may be transported to another dimension, and all that’s left is three short video clips, a fragmented film crew, a boyfriend trying to move on, and a little boy with a gaping maw in his hand. Through interviews, movie clips, discarded film scripts by her grieving father, and home movies, we slowly piece together the story of her life, her career, and her disappearance. Only in the last pages does Severin herself come into focus, along with the whole universe.

I still think about Radiance a lot, especially the ending scene. I found it to be possibly the most enduringly powerful of Valente’s works; something about it just spoke to me on a very deep level. Something about Severin herself, her journey and her curiosity and her loss… just the realization of all she left behind, all the pain of the people trying to go on without this person who didn’t even think they meant that much. Also the whales. Things with whales always hit me in the feels.

The Refrigerator Monologues

As I said above, this is the collective id of this blog as expressed in a series of vignettes about barely-veiled popular superhero analogs and the pain they put women through to better themselves. The dedication is to Gail Simone and it’s just fucking brilliant and sad and angry all at once. It takes on Mary Jane, Harley Quinn, the X-Men, and even goddamn Aquaman, and follows their girlfriends, wives, and female compatriots all as they’re used, abused, and eventually killed in service of the nearest male in their lives. It’s part fiction, part literary criticism, and absolutely vicious in the best possible way. 11/10

30 Comments

  1. SpoonyViking says:

    I’m not a religious person and I don’t believe in Christ the Son, but the story of Christ the man who devotes himself to helping people but also begs God to take away the cup is powerful, indeed.

    Anyway, Valente’s work seems delightfully varied (and more than a bit crazy)! Does she have any stories which are specifically Norse-themed which you can recommend?

    Also, did you perhaps mean “Room in Rome”, or am I mistaking which “The Room” you’re talking about?

    1. Raven says:
      I think she’s talking about the Tommy Wiseau movie “The Room”.  Which if you’ve never heard of it, you should check out the Nostalgia Critic’s review for a quick introduction to the madness
      1. SpoonyViking says:

        I’m not watching anything by the Nostalgia Critic anymore. And no, that can’t be right, Wiseau’s movie doesn’t start with one sex scene after another, does it?

        1. illhousen says:

          Obscurus Lupa has also made a video on the Room way back, so watch that instead if you haven’t.

          I don’t remember if it starts with three wax scenes in a row, but there are at least as many in the movie.

          1. SpoonyViking says:

            I did watch her video. The sex scenes (what little could be shown, at least) didn’t really seem like porn, not even softcore porn.

          2. Raven says:
            Oh, she does?  That’s good to know; now I don’t have to point people towards the nostalgia critic for a crash course in The Room anymore.
            1. illhousen says:

              Yep. Actually, let me find it…

              Here: https://phelous.com/2010/07/28/obscurus-lupa/obscurus-lupa-presents/olp-the-room/

              Note that it’s her old work, so production quality is not at her best. Still, worth watching.

              Reply
            2. SpoonyViking says:

              She also has it on YouTube.

              Reply
            3. illhousen says:

              Yes, but when I try searching for her videos directly, I have to scroll past Russian dubs, and the list of videos on her own channel is long enough that finding a specific one is kinda annoying.

              Reply
        2. Socordya says:

          Did the Nostalgia Critic do something wrong?

          (Beside beeing mediocre in general?)

          Also since people are reccing critical videos on the Room, I’ll mention Cinemasins’ EWW the Room while I’m here.

          1. SpoonyViking says:

            Oh, a whole mess of things, but the one which was a dealbreaker for me – as in, I can’t separate the artist’s mistakes from their work anymore – was covering Justin Carmical’s actions as a sexual predator.

          2. illhousen says:

            Long story short, there was a huge drama blowout back in April over Channel Awesome. 20+ former contributors put together a huge google doc listing their grievances with the site covering a broad range of topics, of hich sexual harassment and abuse are probably the most severe.

            Even if you’re inclined to give the site a benefit of the doubt, corroborating testimonies from so many people do paint a rather clear picture of toxic environment.

            Channel Awesome responded first with a rather bland apology amounting to “We’re sorry you feel that way” (direct or almost direct quote from the apology) and then with a huge poin-by-point attempt at debunking some of the claims from the doc. Hilariously, they’ve actually managed to corroborate some of the claims they tried to debunk, and in general it was basically a live demonstration of how not to do damage control.

            It is unclear how much blame for all of this should be assigned to the Nostalgia Critic. The doc generally concerns itself with the CEO of CA and blames him for most of what happened, but the Nostalgia Critic seems to be at least partially complicit and certainly didn’t make any public moves to dissuade that impression.

            1. Nerem says:
              The best part about the second reply was how they tried to refute the allegations of a toxic work environment by pointing out that ‘these specific women’ always praised their work environment!

              Said women are the only ones left working there and, more to the point, are the only actual employees directly working for Channel Awesome so they are legally required to do them right. So they wanted praise doing the minimum the law required.
               

              Reply
            2. CrazyEd says:

              They also fired Spoony after he had a mental breakdown due to the stress of working there.

              Reply
            3. SpoonyViking says:

              They also specifically focused solely on the female complainers in their second reply. Yeah, not a hostile environment at all.

              Reply
  2. Raven says:
    I’ve stumbled across both Six-Gun Snow White and The Habitation of the Blessed and put them on my to-read list at separate times.  I had no idea they were by the same author; now I’m even more interested in reading them.
  3. illhousen says:

    Sounds interesting. I like me some mind fuck with meaning.

    I’ve really wanted illhousen’s opinion on this ever since I first read it.

    I’ve a backlog of things I want to read and watch currently*, so don’t know when I can get to it, unfortunately.

    why in the world he was in Marya Morevna’s basement

    Oh, yeah, that story. That was a weird story. Like, it essentially opens Bluebeard-esque, except with genders of people involved reversed: a wife leaves for a journey and tells her husband that he can go anywhere in the house except to the basement. He eventually goes there because of course and finds and old man chained to the wall, as you do. The man asks for water, drinks three buckets of it, turns out to be Koschei and flies the fuck away, kidnapping the wife while he was on it. (Then the story turns into an epic quest to kill Koschei and rescue his prisoner which definitely didn’t need the basement opening.)

    The moral here is that if you find a chained man in your spouse’s basement, you should pretend you didn’t notice.

    while also playing with the tropes of Eastern European/Russian myth

    Did it have living water and dead water? I liked that detail in fairytales.

    It also takes a close look at communist-era poverty and exploitation as experienced by a young girl and her family, and the bleak desperation is captured very well.

    Yeaaaah, Soviet economic and general policy have basically fucked up over everything (but especially rural areas, which didn’t really recover even today) and eventually led to holodomor (which can be roughly translated as “plague of hunger,” and was exactly what you think it was). The time immediately after the Civil War was known as Razruha (roughly, “Ruination”) and it kinda… continued for a very long time, with the government enacting more and more repressive laws and enacting various dubious initiatives on grounds of fighting it, which you can recognize as a popular political move that it in no way shady.

    The living standards were of Soviet citizens were different depending on specific era of USSR, we kinda regularly swung between reluctant tolerance and total paranoia politically and quiet desperation and kinda OK economically, though there was always enough suffering to go around.

    *Currently, I’m reading Spook by Mary Roach, a brief history of scientific attempts to research the soul and the afterlife. There was a surprising number of attempts to physically weight the soul, including a modern scientist dreaming up a multidisciplinary $100,000 project involving building a perfectly sealed system in which living organisms would perish and hopefully release their souls in a manner which would allow for their weighting.

    Naturally, nobody wants to actually pay for that. The guy tried to get funding from the Catholic Church, buuuut…

    After Nahum’s first audience, he was invited back. Now the mood had grown solemn. Outside experts hd been called in, theologians with backgrounds in cosmology and physics. Not only did they not offer to fund Nahum’s project, they did their best to talk him out of it. They spoke of a “divine design” for the division of the worlds, and tried to make the case that Nahum’s experiment threatened a breach of that division. The consequences, they warned, could be dire and unfathomable.

    “They envisioned that there was a potential for opening a dark ‘schism’ that might unleash some type of heretofore unknown ‘power’ into our traditionally protected world.”

    The window metaphor made an appearance. Nahum was accused of trying to “open a window that might not be closed after opening.”

    So, yeah, apparently the Catholic Church thinks he wants to open a portal to Hell.

    I’ve also learned that there was a great scientific debate on the origin of soul and the mechanism of ensoulment between “spermists” and “ovists.” Their arguments were just great:

    “Ovum looks like a sphere, which is perfection, therefore soul comes from it.”

    “Actually, ovum looks more like a globule, and you know what else looks like a globule? Shit.”

    1. illhousen says:

      Also, in the context of Russian lit and Soviet era specifically, I’d recommend reading Strugatsky brothers’ books. They’re interesting from the zeitgeist point of view as Strugatsky started very idealistic, fully believing in the ideals of communism and depicting a world where they’re true, and then gradually became disillusioned in them, with their later works becoming progressively more depressing (the theme of helplessness, of running in circles, of how, no matter what you do, nothing ever changes, is a pretty prominent one in those works, with Snail on the Slope embodying it outright in the title).

      Monday Starts on Saturday and its sequel, Tale of the Troika, are particalrly interesting in this regard since the former belongs to the idealistic period, while the latter is steeped in cynicism.

      I believe you’re familiar with Roadside Picnic or at least heard of it, and I would suggest reading it as well (note that the movie adaptation is vastly different thematically and plot-wise, and the game doesn’t bear mention at all).

      1. APen says:

        Jumping off of Soviet era books, I’d recommend Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. He wrote sci-fi, the kind of sci-fi that’s interested in the really fundamental questions of the genre — what is the alien? If it’s truly alien, how can we understand it? How does our treatment of the alien ultimately reflect on ourselves?

        He’s super fascinated by the process of scientific discovery and the human limitations of aquiring knowledge, and most of his books feature at least a chapter summarizing the history of the scientific literature on whatever his (made-up) topic is.

        And his descriptions of alien worlds are stunning. Like, I normally have trouble getting through drawn-out nature descriptions, but he paints these worlds so that they come alive.

        Solaris and The Invincible are both great (like with the Strugatsky brothers, the Tarkovsky adaptation of Solaris makes a totally different thematic point than the original novel), and if you enjoy less conventional plot structures, I really like His Master’s Voice. Also, his collection of short-stories, the Star Diaries, are zany and hilarious. There’s a fun East German TV adaptation of them and some episodes are up on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xO9ppicjlFg

         

        1. illhousen says:

          Yes, he’s pretty good.

          Aside from the mentioned works, I would also recommend Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, which is essentially Paranoia: the Novel, and does a good job satirizing the Cold War.

        2. Keleri says:

          Solaris is amazing, easily one of my favorite alien SF works.

      2. Keleri says:

        Nice, Roadside Picnic is one of my favorite depictions (or… you get the idea) of alien life of all time.

        1. illhousen says:

          It’s like Cthulhu on a humble family trip.

          I especially like the depiction of a mysterious alien artefact that defy our understanding of physics… which is clearly a can of soda or something to that effect, except with magnets.

          2
  4. Keleri says:

    I need to read more of her stuff; I read Palimpsest and it made me super uneasy but I liked The Girl Who… first installment when she was publishing it piecemeal back on Livejournal. The LJ/Fandom Wank diaspora doesn’t like her much for various LJ-era indiscretions but I’ve heard good things.

    1. Act says:

      Palimpsest was a weird, weird book. I didn’t expect to like it and it’s not something I’d normally like and I still don’t quite get why I did. Her writing is just so good.

      It was also one of her earlier novels and I think is notably different from the others in tone and theme.

      The LJ/Fandom Wank diaspora doesn’t like her much for various LJ-era indiscretions

      do they like anyone tho

      1
  5. Cosmogone says:
    Hooo boy, I have such conflicting feelings about Valente and I haven’t even read her yet. Judging by the excerpts I’ve seen, both Valente’s prose and the atmosphere in her books are god-tier… but people always bring up Deathless as the highest point of her career and something perfectly tailored for me – and I’ve never wanted to read something less.

    You had me on “really poetic graphic descriptions of blowjobs”, though. I should definitely check out at least Palimpsest, The Habitation… and Radiance, probably also The Orphan’s Tales, so thanks for the recommendation.

    P.S. I second Illhousen’s and APen’s book suggestions, though Strugatsky are less of an enjoyable read and more of a material for a sociological study.

    1. Act says:

      Deathless is a weird book to call her best. Of her adult novels, I found it to be the weakest. The only reason is rec it over anything else she’s written would be if I knew someone was really into Russian folklore.

      1. Cosmogone says:
        Eh, I think people promote it to me so strongly in part because I’m both a Slav and really into folklore – but that’s kinda why I’m also really harsh on folklore reimaginings.

        I love your reviews, btw. You know how to get people really interested without spoiling anything. <3

        1. Act says:

          Thank you! That means so much, really!

  6. Erlkoenigin says:
    She wrote a new book about the Eurovision Song Contest in space; she’s talking about it here, for anyone interested.

     

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