by Catherynne M. Valente
Cover Artist: Rima Staines
Review by Colleen Cahill
PS Publishing Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781848631243
Date: 15 December 2010 / Show Official Info /
It is said there is a book for every reader and for every reader, a book. When looking at collections of stories, this can be applied to the individual titles, especially when the author has a wide range of styles and topics. This is the case in Catherynne M. Valente's Ventriloquism, a gathering of 31 stories that cover so many themes and ideas, it can dazzle the reader.
This is not to say that there are no common threads in these weavings. There is a feeling of familiarity in many of these tales, and that is not surprising as fairy tales, legends, and myths are the focus of many of them. An exploration of Gretel's feelings years after she had pushed the witch in the oven is in "Bones Like Black Sugar". The history and motivation of Snow White's stepmother is revealed in "Milk and Apples", bringing a new side to the "wicked" woman.
How Valente approaches these are not as just retelling the tales, rather she considers the sides lesser seen. The opening line of "The Maiden-Tree" is from Sleeping Beauty's viewpoint: "It is remarkable how like a syringe a spindle can be." This is a different tone than the story most of us know, going down a darker path, one that might be closer to the original intent of this tale.
Valente does not limit herself to just European tales, as she harvests from many fields. "Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of Baku and Jotai" is about a Japanese spirit that eats dreams. The Baku has "a tapir's snout snuffing for your breath as a pig for truffles"; not a comfortable image, but comfort is not what these stories are reaching for. These stories stretch our expected view, as in "The Psalm of the Second Body", which opens with "I am the first story ever told: the story of the harlot". The tale of Gilgamesh has inspired many things, including this poetic view.
Nor are only old tales and legends the only fodder for this book. "Killswitch", a history of a 1989 cult computer game is a fruitful source for Valente's prose, as it has echoes of an urban legend. Her take on zombies is very different, as "The Days of Flaming Motorcycles" deals more with heart and family, plus having a really neat hook when you figure out the source of the title. History is also a source of inspiration and the "Ghost of Gunkangina", about a coal-rich island off Japan that was once the "single most densely populated area on the planet" is rich in voices, pain and longing.
Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica", and not just because I work in a map library (I particularly liked map descriptions like "Immaculate condition"). This story of two map makers who give very different views of Antarctica is a study of reality verse imagination and where people choose to live.
This is a work for those seeking something beyond the ordinary, with wide horizons and unexpected turns. As Lev Grossman's states in the introduction "this is the book you want. You are at the right party".
Highly recommended, dive into Ventriloquism and discover the story waiting just for you.