May 14, 2009

Books: Castle Waiting

My apologies for being late this week. Things are getting a little hectic again and when I am home, I just want to put my feet up and fall asleep in front of the TV like a proper fuddy-duddy. Afghan throw and everything.

On the bloodwork front, I got a call from my new doctor's office asking to change my appointment from mid-June to the end of this month. I hope it's just because they realized it was a follow-up for the lab tests. So the first blog entry in June should have an update on why I am what I am.

Now, today I am compelled to do something new. You see, behind the scenes of this weekly online journal is a book lover with an art degree. I have grown up with visual, audio, and literary storytelling and I still spend a lot of time watching and reading and writing about things that have nothing to do with my "condition." What does that have to do with the price of hairy tea in china, though? I have to share with you the delightful and unnerving experience of finding a book that marries all my artistic and narrative sensibilities with the cosmetic struggle I face every day.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Castle Waiting by Linda Medley.

"Where have you been all these years?" you might ask. "Castle Waiting's been around since 1997." Well actually, I was in junior high. I thought comics were about muscular men in spandex saving the world. Even in college, I wasn't sure I was really that "into" the media. But through education and many long, meandering visits to book stores revealed to me that there have been a lot of artists and writers (and combinations of the two) out there taking comic books wherever they want them to go. Castle Waiting is exactly what I want out of the graphic novel scene; it does not relentlessly shove you towards some world-saving quest. It lets you stop to smell the roses and get to know the characters and play with well-known fairy tales while exploring aspects of life that we all experience--whether we're enchanted anthropomorphic creatures or modern day working-for-the-weekend human beings like you and I.

I discovered this book by accident. I just liked how it looked in the store. Beautiful hardcover with an olive green spine. It was sealed shut by plastic, but I could see the ribbon bookmark peeking out between uneven cream-colored pages like it was all sewn together by hand. I even liked the sound of the title, "Castle Waiting." Like "Cellar Door" for you Donnie Darko fans--two of the most beautiful words in the English language. I hadn't even seen the Wikipedia entry at this point that mentioned a bearded nun. It's even mentioned in the hirsutism article and still it had never rung a bell with me.

Thing is, just because you're a bearded lady doesn't make this a selling point. I wasn't comfortable with the thought of seeing it etched so permanently on pages in front of me, but I was curious. If you are, as well, you needn't be nervous. I love the way Linda Medley treats the topic of bearded ladies. She doesn't beat readers over the head with the idea that looks don't matter; she just tells the stories with honesty and a great sense of humor. (Just when things get heavy, a lion farts; what more can you ask for?) Now, I say "stories" here because the Solicitine story arc features a few different nuns of the order, and is a very large part of this book. I have read some reviews that were disappointed at how much the book focuses on them, but I think one just has to remember that the main story continues after this volume.

I thought it was a fascinating idea to create an order for St. Wilgeforte, a bearded woman who was canonized after she prayed to be prevented from marrying a man who would have interfered with her faith and grew a beard overnight. Yes, she's a real saint--I didn't think so either, when I first heard of her after reading Fifth Business by Robertson Davies in college. (She plays a small part in that book as the protagonist's topic of research.) Linda Medley's version of the tale is quite touching, and adds a heartwarming layer to the fantasy world as her order becomes a refuge for women whose only other expected niche is the circus. I wish I could find out more about the author/artist and how she came to want to add such a thing into her tale.

Some of my favorite quotes:
"Hey Peaceful--you growin' a beard?"
"Looks like it, Alf!"
"Hunh! That's unusual, ain't it?"
"Sure is! What'll you have?"
"The regular."

"Good or evil, somebody gave us these beards for a reason... We, more than anyone else, are better able to look past a person's dumbness, or third arm, hunchback, whatever ...and see what's in their hearts. To hear what they can't say."

"Niko, what does it mean when someone in the crowd won't look at me?"
"Ah. Those people are afraid... Afraid of anything that is not like themselves. Afraid that there can be wonders in the world that they cannot explain away. They do not want the world to be vast, Clarrrice."
I'd love to discuss the arc in more detail but I'd hate to spoil the experience of reading it for the first time for those who are planning to do so. You don't have to like comics to enjoy this book, or have an interest in bearded ladies. The entire world Linda Medley presents is so charming and immersing. But I had not expected to come across such a blunt, brave depiction of the lives of bearded women, in a fantasy setting though it is. It's a wonderful book, and you can get it from Amazon, Fantagraphics Books (the publisher), and many other sites, and you may even be able to find it in your local comic book shop or the graphic novel section of a bookstore.

Until next week, everyone!

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