Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Review: The Last Unicorn

I know what you probably think when you hear the word "unicorn." You picture a violet-eyed, snow white horse with a golden horn and glitter in its candy pink mane. It would giggle and frolic and fart rainbows and generally be the most asinine, girly member of the pantheon of mythical beasts. Surely, most of us would rather read about dragons, griffins, or even a nice sea serpent.

If it had the thumbs to hold a pen, this unicorn 
would dot its "i's" with little hearts.

Original image found here.

It's difficult to imagine someone who could take the Lisa Frank/ My Little Pony-esque sting out of the image that the unicorn has acquired over the years, but that's exactly what Peter S. Beagle does through the pages of THE LAST UNICORN. Whatever quaint notions you may harbor about these creatures being the over-caffeinated cheerleaders of the fantasy world, prepare to abandon them. These aren't your mothers' unicorns.

Pick up a copy here.

Beagle's unicorn comes to life on the page as a strange, majestic beast capable of wonders and horrors, violence and mercy. Her mind is a logical, deliberate place, her view of the world tinged with a cool detachment. Being a supernatural being with the casual arrogance that comes with magical prowess and the wisdom of having seen the centuries pass, she lacks a truly empathetic nature. When she encounters our mortal griefs, the best she can manage sometimes is pity, because our human emotions and concerns are strange to her. Unlike we mere mortals, the unicorn explains to us early in the book that her kind are incapable of feeling regret. 

Added to this alien viewpoint is her awareness of her own beauty, which she enjoys admiring in ponds, and her consciousness of her legendary status, which merits parades and fanfare in her view. And yet, these almost unpleasant-sounding characteristics come together across the pages to create a creature who is not one whit unlikeable. Indeed, her vanity has an odd charm to it. And given that she is a creature whose horn can cow a dragon, return the dead to life, and shatter illusions, the reverence she expects is well-deserved. Besides, there is an odd vulnerability to her, beneath all of her supernatural badassery. Like a hermit making her way into the bustling wide world, you find yourself nervous for her as she sets out on her quest, and catching glimpses of the unexpected sensitivity hidden beneath her seemingly dispassionate nature.

Don't hate her because she's beautiful.

Original image found here.

The story revolves around the unicorn's startling discovery that she is the last of her kind left in the world.  Unicorns are solitary creatures, so she has not been concerned by the fact that she hadn't seen another unicorn for some time. Then she overhears a conversation between two hunters, who know that they're in a unicorn's forest and lament that the poor beast is the last, as all the rest have vanished. And while she initially can't believe that it's true, she has to know for sure. If something has become of her people, she either has to find them or join them in their fate. And so begins her quest.

It is jarring for the unicorn to leave her forest. Her presence there kept it safe and peaceful and the odd, anachronistic world beyond its limits does not seem kind. Indeed, men in the world no longer know her for what she is, and there are dangers that threaten even a creature like her. However, like any good hero, our unicorn gets by with a little help from her friends. She is ultimately joined on her quest by Schmendrick the magician, a bumbling magic-user with an unusual curse, and Molly Grue, a sensible middle-aged woman who was formerly a cook for a group of Merry Men wannabes. Schmendrick charms as a secret softy who employs the skillful patter of a used car salesman to escape disaster when his magic fails him (as it often does). Meanwhile, though she sometimes comes off as pushy, Molly is a marvelous, practical foil for a grandiose personality like Schmendrick's, with a deep sense of compassion to soften her and save her from severity. These colorful cast members add humor and humanity to the tale, giving us a more familiar lens through which to view the world.  From the macabre wonders of Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival to the twisted towers of King Haggard's castle, these travelers keep us amused, invested, and entertained. 

The unicorn's nemesis in the story, the Red Bull, 
will NOT give you wings. He will, however,
try to steal your unicorns.

Original image found here.

The writing in this book is beyond amazing. Peter S. Beagle's words have a strange music, where unicorns are the "careless color of seafoam," cats look like piles of autumn leaves, and no matter how much a magician may seek to school his expression, his nose always gets away from him. My writerly heart when pitter-pat with envy as Beagle described how the spiral staircase of Haggard's tower squeezed in on them like a sweaty fist and later conjured images of a brisk wind that "leaped here and there in the room like a gleeful animal discovering the flimsiness of human beings." A master wordsmith, the words he strings together are seldom words you would expect to see standing shoulder-to-shoulder in any sentence, and yet their combination makes perfect sense. Much like a good poem evokes feeling using unexpected imagery, so, too, does Beagle's artful prose stir one's heart and imagination to a gleeful frothing.

Likewise, his dialogue has the kind of lovely, poetic logic that makes perfect sense in a fairy tale. In this story, young girls are the ideal questing beasts and one look in a woman's eyes suggests that she is either mad or just born that morning. 

Overall, Beagle's imaginative and unexpected work was like a beautiful and haunting dream. The combination of his legendary, medieval setting peppered with oddities like a butterfly singing of trains and a prince reading a magazine made me unsure of what world I was dwelling in, but I was absolutely certain that I never wanted to leave it. The plot unfolded with expert pacing, subplots cropping up in flourishes like dashes of paint on an artist's canvas, and everything tied together in the end exactly as it should. And in the same way that he made a unicorn so much more than a pretty beast, Beagle transformed this fairy tale into so much more than just a bedtime story. There was an epic quality, and yet a humility and a humanity to it. And much in the way that a good song will echo in your mind long after you first hear it, the themes and images in this book resonated in my heart long after I turned the final page. 

In the end, I understood the quote from Patrick Rothfuss written along the bottom of the cover: "The Last Unicorn is the best book I have ever read. You need to read it. If you've already read it, you need to read it again." 

Hear hear, Mr. Rothfuss. I heartily agree.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Reflections on a Furry Companion

This morning, I was in a huge flaming hurry and managed to slice my kneecap open as I did a tidy-up shave. It didn't hurt that much, but it bled profusely. Still, I didn't pause to bandage it. There was no time. I had to get my dog to the vet. 

I wouldn't have been in quite such a rush if I hadn't spent the night before sleeping on the floor, snuggled up in a pile of blankets with Miss Molly the Wonder Pup, the furry love of my life since 1999. Periodically through the night, I woke up and rolled over to check on her, sometimes offering her her water bowl and others, running to fetch her meds to help her get comfortable enough to fall back asleep. 

The end result was that when my alarm clock began screeching from its temporary new home on the arm of my couch, I found myself casting about futilely for something heavy to throw at it. As nothing came to hand, I settled for rocking up and smacking the buttons on the top. Having slain the beast, I went back to sleep for a bit. 

The second time the alarm started bleating, I barely let it make a peep before I smacked it again and settled back down, questing eagerly after unconsciousness again. Let it never be said that I'm not a quick study. 

Then a snout nudged my arm, and I looked over into muzzy brown eyes.

"I don't know what you're in such a hurry for," I told Molly. "They're going to stick a scope up your lady bits."

She stared at me soulfully and gave a pleading lick. 

I sighed and rocked back up again, turning off the alarm clock and starting to get ready to go.

This is not the sort of face you say "no" to.

A charge through the fray of Tallahassee traffic brought us, in short order, to the fancy new vet my old vet referred me to. It lies hidden in the woods on a weird twisty road you can only reach if you are pure of heart or have a functional GPS. For me, I had to rely on the former, because I haven't updated the maps in my GPS since sometime in 2009. Consequently, when I asked it to lead me to the new vet's office yesterday, it took me repeatedly and insistently to a funeral home.

"Not funny, ass hat," I told the GPS lady. Luckily, I got the directions all sorted out in a quick phone call. By comparison, today's trip was smooth sailing, aside from the odd old lady putzing along in the left lane going 15 mph under the posted speed limit with her right blinker on. 

The hard part was picking up my 51-pound dog and carrying her from the car into the vet's office. It's not so much her weight. I have dealt with lugging her up and down the stairs off and on for the past month, and that doesn't bother me much. It's the change in her demeanor as I carry her. Molly is not a fan of being hauled around like luggage. On a typical day, if subjected to such an indignity, she goes rigid in my arms, both front paws splayed out as if braced for impact and her back end all a-swivel when I start to set her down. 

This skeptical look was probably her Spidey senses a-tingle with the 
notion that someday, somehow, I would blog about her vagina.

However, since our little scare yesterday, in which her hoo-ha started dripping blood and I ended up rushing her in a frenzy to the vet, she's been resigned. I pick her up, and I know that she still hates it, but she lays limply in my arms like a sack of potatoes, her feet dangling beneath her. Today, when I put her down in the vet's parking lot for a minute, she was still not quite sure how to use her paws. Looking dazed and uncomfortable, she put her front feet out in front of her at awkward angles, her hips twisted slightly such that her weight rested on one back leg. 

Given the number of people who started cooing with sympathy as I carried her into the vet, though, I began to suspect she was playing an angle. Never let it be said that I have a dumb dog. 

Never let it be said that I have a bad dog, either, though. In the past few days, she's had fingers, thermometers, and scopes jammed in her orifices. Despite being in pain and being manhandled by strangers, never once did the faintest murmur of protest escaped her. There was no growling, no curl of the lip. Nothing but soulful eyes and a tucked tail. 

"She's such a sweet girl," everyone kept saying. 

No need to tell me that. I've known it for nearly 14 years now. 

At the end of the day's procedure, I learned that we still don't know what's going on and we won't until the results come back from the lab. But after a guided video tour of my dog's insides, I began to feel cautiously optimistic for the first time since this all started. The doc says it may not be cancer, and that if it's cancer, it may not be malignant. He expedited the processing of her labs, and we expect to find out what's going on on Friday morning. 

In the meantime, Molly was looking more alert already as we left the vet's office. She walked out under her own steam and even tried to take advantage of my sympathy by pulling me through the flowerbeds on an impromptu walk. Though I carried her up the stairs to get into my apartment, she seemed more interested in following me around like she usually does, always with the hope in her doggy heart that whatever I'm doing will involve dropped food. 

Through thick and thin, blonde and brunette, Molly has been my best pal.

We were both in better spirits by the time I sat cross-legged on the carpet beside her to pet her ears and eat my lunch. I was relieved to see her looking more like her old self, and she was making soft whistling noises through her nose as I petted her- her happy sound. 

It wasn't until I was sitting there, watching cartoons and petting my dog, that I finally remembered cutting my knee that morning. Finishing my sandwich, I dusted the crumbs from my hands and pulled up my pants leg to inspect the damage. It really wasn't that deep, but there was blood all across my knee. I probably should've at least put a Band-aid on it.

Smelling the blood, Molly raised her head to inspect the cut. And then my dog, who had spent the past 24 hours in varying levels of pain, began to tenderly lick my wound clean.

Just in case I ever wonder if it's worth it (and honestly, I never do), it's moments like this that remind me that a friend this devoted is worth paying any price for. And God willing, I will see her well enough to run laps around my living room again.