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A Child Again Hardcover – October 1, 2005
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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From Publishers Weekly
Inverting and perverting popular folklore and fairy tales is a constant of Coover's prolific, pyrotechnic career, from Pricksongs & Descants in 1969 to last year's Stepmother. A dazzling writer, he's in tip-top if familiar form with this collection of 18 outlandishly skewed tales that veer from slapstick hilarity ("McDuff on the Mound," in which mighty Casey still strikes out) to macabre despair ("The Return of the Dark Children," in which the children paraded away by the Pied Piper come home, with the rats, to haunt their town). "Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee" expands the universe of Peter, Paul and Mary's cryptic "Puff the Magic Dragon" song; "Alice in the Time of Jabberwock" posits a Wonderland even more absurd than the original; "The Invisible Man" leads a lonely interior life; and Little Red Riding Hood is menaced and mesmerized by her "Grandmother's Nose." Fans of Coover's riotous wordplay and fondness for the grotesque, the satirical, the scatological and the erotic will feel right at home with this collection that, though entertaining, is more of the splendid same rather than something new. "Shuffleable deck-of-cards story" that comes with the book not seen by PW. (Oct.)
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While every story varies wildly in voice, tone, and subject matter, they all seem to be striking at a similar theme, which is the pain of growing old, the death of childhood illusions and fantasies. While this theme isn't new, Coover always puts a fresh, somewhat sick twist on it.This book about the years after the fairy tale ends, the denoument in which Alice is still stuck in Wonderland, now grown fat and irritable, her hormones raging out of control. By inverting the framework of stories that we have all read and enjoyed as children, Coover cuts directly into the deep longing to return to childhood that each of us possesses. Moreover, he never fails to surprise, to take the unexpected position and flesh it out with astounding understanding.
To top it all off, Mcsweeney's (as usual) has crafted a gorgeous book to house these stories. If nothing else, buy it just to have one of the most beautiful hard cover books published in the last ten years on your bookshelf.
This one's a winner. Check it out.
Indeed perhaps the dominant theme is old age - perhaps not a surprise from a 77-year-old writer. (Though to be sure some of these stories were first published decades ago.) Story after story looks at characters from a familiar tale grown very old. The collection opens with "Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee", about the aging Jackie Paper visiting his childhood friend Puff the Magic Dragon once again. And it closes with "Aesop's Forest", which depicts the death of Aesop the fabulist along with the death of the characters in his forest, particularly a very decrepit lion. The story is sad and funny and cynical in equal measure - which could be said of many of the stories here.
One of my favorites is "Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock". Again, an aging character returns to the fantasy world she visited as a youth. Alice, apparently menopausal, flabby, incontinent, and otherwise afflicted with the ills of the elderly, finds herself again in unchanging Wonderland. Coover very cleverly depicts the characters of Wonderland from a slant viewpoint, and very movingly but not sentimentally depicts Alice's regrets and frustration.
Not every story insists on aging characters. "The Dead Queen" is a "what happens after happily ever after" story, in which Prince Charming begins to be concerned about Snow White's true character as they bury her tortured stepmother. "The Last One", another favorite of mine, is the story of Bluebeard from the point of view of Bluebeard - paranoidly convinced that his lovely new wife will disobey him as all the others have, by visiting his secret charnel room. But there is a nice twist buried in the close.
Coover is also fascinated by games and metafictional tricks. Three stories are presented as puzzles: a riddle, a cryptogram, and most humorously, a jigsaw puzzle, "Suburban Jigsaw", in which the tabs and slots of the puzzle seem representative of the sexual habits of the adulterous characters of the title suburb. Even cleverer, perhaps, is "Heart Suit", a story presented as fifteen cards (an introduction, a joker, and the heart suit) in a pocket at the back of the book. The story concerns the mystery of who stole the tarts the Queen of Hearts baked for the King. It is designed to be read with the cards shuffled in any order (except for the first and last). I tried a few possible orders and it works quite well - the fact that the guilty party might be one of several suspects is part of the point.
I haven't touched on many of the stories here - such as "The Presidents", which hilariously views Presidents as a rather unpleasant species of animal, or "The Return of the Dark Children", a powerful look at the guilty response of the parents of Hamelin to the loss of their children to the Pied Piper. The book is outstanding - clever throughout without forgetting to mean something, cynical but still sympathetic to its characters, and excellently written, in long carefully constructed paragraphs and a quite individual voice.