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Catherynne M. Valente, Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams (Prime, 2005)

Sometimes I feel as if I should have a "five-and-a-half star" ranking. I've given a lot of books five stars in the past couple of years-- more five-star reviews than I'd given out in the decade before, almost. (Blame my getting a library card again, and thus not being limited to my own books.) But there are some books that transcend even the five-star rating, that are not only outstanding works of art, but that are so beautifully written that they deserve a place on the short shelf of sacred literature. The benchmark, for me, of this trait has long been Wendy Walker's The Secret Service, the book I consider the most beautifully written and constructed book I've ever read. Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams is the first book I've come across since reading The Secret Service that rises to the same level.

Throw away your conceptions of what a novel is before cracking the cover on this one. All the stuff you got taught in English class, chuck it out the window. Yume No Hon is character study in its purest form. The problem is, you've got an autobiography from the most unreliable of narrators (cf. Lauren Slater's Excellent Lying, to which this bears a passing resemblance more than once, were our main character epileptic and living in America); every time you think you've got an answer as to Ayako's real nature, you're likely to turn around and find yourself with many more questions. It's the mimetics of creative nonfiction, but turned around and attached to fiction; is Ayako dying and delirious, or possessed by powerful spirits? Is she ghost, hermit, memory, God? Ultimately, the answers to the questions don't matter (though the very end of the book does offer the reader a chance to resolve them); the journey, rather than the destination, is the point here.

And what a journey it is. Valente's language is lush, rich, precise, every word slotted into place with painstaking care. While reading this, I found myself with a constant sense of overwhelming rightness in word choice ("rightness" here as opposed to "suitability;" a Dennis Lehane or George R. R. Martin novel contains suitable language, but the sentences could be phrased in many ways and still get the point across; the right language is that place where you think that there really is no better way to phrase something). The book is rich with striking, original metaphors and turns of phrase that will have the lover of beautiful language scrambling for a notebook to copy it all down. Buy two, actually; you may end up filling one completely before you're done.

While the one negative effect of all this is to highlight the book's few typos (and, comparatively, there are very few; if memory serves, I found five, and two of them were arguable), this is one of those exceptionally rare pieces of work where stumbling upon a typo became something forgivable.

Yume No Hon belongs with Walker's The Secret Service, McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Koja's Strange Angels, and a handful of other novels on the short shelf of sacred literature-- the first stuff you save when your apartment catches fire. It is a small jewel, to be read, pondered, re-read, and (for novelists) aspired to. Find a copy. Read it. *****
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on December 27, 2006
I found this book at the library after hearing about the author. I was curious and read it on a rather hectic trip.

My initial reaction was mixed...but as the story mellowed in my brain and invaded my dreams, I knew I had stumbled upon something more than a cunningly written piece of poetic fiction.

Catherynne M. Valente cleverly weaves several elements of myth from around the world into the five tiered pagoda in the book of dreams. I could not begin to give the twisting turning plot justice by trying to describe it here. It would be like trying to capture the chattering and singing of a brook as it winds through the woods.

Suffice to say, you would be well served to dive into this world of spirits and myths where the silk moths weave slick, black, gloss....
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on January 12, 2006
I've been aching to write a review for this book since I finished it a couple of weeks ago. But where does one find the words for such an inspiring and intoxicating work?

Read this book for a love of language. Read this book to be immersed in the voice of solitude. Read this book to lose yourself for much too short a time.

To be honest, I read this wonderful book in a few days and promptly reread it immediately after, which is not something I often do. Valente paints with such vibrant language that I could taste the weak tea, the river and the dust. I plan on reading this treasure again, very soon, and will continue to do so whenever I need such a friend.
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on August 31, 2007
This book can be rated on many levels.

As a pure literary piece, as prose and imagery, and as simply what it is.
As pure literature, some may be disappointed. Some might believe that there is no "point" to this story. There is no "reason" for it, no technical introduction, climax or any of the myriad of literary structures treasured by conventional wisdom.

As prose and imagery, this is a stunningly and sometimes overwrought piece of literature. Situations and parable leap from this page and overwhelm your senses. As a pure love of writing that gallops on a page rather than runs, or twist and turns your mind, I have never met its match at this point.

Which leads to the 3rd way, to take this book as it is. It will not fit any of the defined categories you may think of offhand, but it is certainly something that will capture you for a time in its pure love of what it writes of.
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on April 23, 2009
In exile on a mountain in medieval Japan, Akayo is an old woman whose psyche has fractured into a number of dreams with range from her mountain land to Egyptian myth and Greek mythology. In the passage of a year, Ayako explores these dreams--and, ultimately, unites them. Lyrical, mythic, and loosely bounded by plot, Yume no Hon is beautiful but a bit overwrought. However, as the plot develops the book gains focus and ends strongly. It's not for all readers, but I recommend it to those who love lyricism and are willing to put time and effort into reading it.

For the first half of Yume no Hon I was somewhat underwhelmed: the book is beautiful prose poetry, but its weak plot leaves it unfocused. I love Valente for the beauty of her books: vivid images, lyrical language, mythic content--her writing reads like music. But Akayo's dreams range a broad spectrum from the Greek sphinx to creation myths to the mountains of Japan, and for the first half of the book the plot is weak, stranding the reader among the shifting dreams with little direction to guide him. The beautiful images and language grow repetitive and it's too easy to lose focus, and pages skim by read but not understood or fully experienced.

As the book goes on, however, the plot comes together and grows stronger. It's still easy to get lost in the lyricism, but the disparate influences seem less random and the dreams gain direction as the book gains purpose. And as it comes together, the book redeems its slow beginning. With less anxiety about the book's direction, it's easier to enjoy the lyricism and mythology. Akayo's journey has a satisfying conclusion which has a pleasing sense of closure but remains expansive and pregnant with potential. The book's end also begs an immediate reread, to better experience the story with the entire plot in mind. All in all, Yume no Hon is not Valente's best--it can be difficult to read, it lacks some of the magic and joy of her other books, and the plot forms too late. I would recommend readers pick up her more recent novels (The Orphan's Tales or Palimpsest), but if you've read those or find Yume no Hon more intriguing, then by all means pick it up. For readers who love lyrical language and mythic content, and who are willing to put some effort into the work of reading, this is a beautiful and meaningful text.
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on April 11, 2011
I have read a number of Valente's works and really enjoyed them all. This book was no exception; it is beautifully written and reminds more of poetry than a traditional story at times.

This book tells the story of a women who has fled a village when it was invaded and chosen to live the life of a hermit on a mountain. She lives in a pagoda, an old temple, on the mountain and learns lessons from the river and the gate. She is very old and at times had trouble separating dream and reality; the villagers of the village below think she is a ghost and bring offerings to her.

The beautiful descriptions and lyrical phrases in this book are outstanding. As always I am blown away by the poetic quality of Valente's writing. She is able to create wonderful imagery of both beautiful and violent things.

This book won't be for everyone; as with her book Labyrinth, the story is vague and at times it is hard to tell what is reality and what is dream...but then that is kind of the point. If you like easy to read stories, with clear-cut plots this isn't the book for you. If you don't mind vagueness and enjoy poetry you will love the lyrical quality and beauty of this book.

The book ties together a number of themes. There is a Japanese overtone to it, Babylonian creation myths are included, and theories of quantum physics are touched on. I know it sounds odd, but for this book it really works. There are also illustrations throughout, which is something new for Valente and I enjoyed those as well.

Overall another outstanding book from Valente. I love the poetry of her written and the way she makes lush descriptions of everything with analogies. The story is vague and dreamy, so it is not for everyone. If you like poetry and if you don't mind vagueness I recommend you pick this up. If you have enjoyed Valente's previous works I also recommend you pick this up.
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