Comments on Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon
All comments from Butterbur's
Woodshed, and used here by permission of the authors.
From Mary Stolzenbach's ON THE ROAD:
Hand, Elizabeth. Waking the Moon
"Waking the Moon Or, TAM LIN on drugs..."
Not only did this book involve two kids meeting over a quote from children's
literature, just as Con and I muttially quoted A.A. Milne at a second meeting,
it also mentions Jane Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion,
the book Conrad was carrying under his arm at our first meeting. (Truthfully,
I thought at the time it was a bit of pseudointellectual showing-off.)
On the architecture of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: I knew a
former student who used to tell a long story about a poor devout woman,
Poor Crazy Margaret, who was kneeling- one day, praying, in the middle of
the Shrine, when lo! The Virgin Mary appeared to her! And she said to her,
"Margaret, go and tell my priests that they are to build to me a beautiful
church. On this very same spot." I never spent much time at or near
Catholic University and hope that Byrd, or someone, can tell us how close
Elizabeth Hand's conception is to the reality. The name for it she's come
up with, both the full version and the shortened "the Divine,"
Warning: plenty of spoilers will appear in this discussion.
On first reading, several of the murders seemed telegraphed 'way in advance.
I was sorry to see Baby Joe go, though. Shucks. And our Exceptionally Noble
Woman of Alternate Sexuality, Annie Harmony, is a pleasure to meet. One
gal with absolutely no use for woo-woo makes a nice, earthy change from
the other folks here... and we're glad she survives.
Though Magda seems to be a major character, early on she is offed and disappears.
The scene of her discovery of the original sacrificial site and relic is
gripping and, I thought, extremely well-done. There are many wonderful set-pieces
throughout this book, scenes of operatic power and conviction; and many
tossed-off phrases that ring pleasantly on the mind and tongue and impress
me with Hand's stylistic talent. Still, there are passages which are somewhat
flat and plebeian. One feels that some of the exposition was written hurriedly
to join up the high spots, or that some of the book dates back to early
versions before the writer gained her full power.
Oliver and Angelica live up to their billing as gorgeously beautiful and
full of magnetism, and they are easy to picture, though I thought Angelica
became a bit more tawdry in the second half. Perhaps I should make it clear
here that though I spoke of Sweeney reminding me of the student I was, I
would never have missed all those classes--or done all those drugs--or drunk
all that booze--or.... Hey, I was pretty boring. But there was for me as
well, the gaping at exotic and powerful-appearing people, who seemed completely
new to my experience, the sense of being on the fringe of great things,
and of moving out of a childhood shell.
Hand does houses and their furnishings extremely well. I loved the little
carriage house, the large Craftsman-built house of the ill-fated "retreat,"
Angelica's desert villa, and the places of the Benandanti. And would have
liked to live in some of these places (given a lot less excitement!).
Did Augustine really say that about Greek men taking over and the women
losing their names? It's like the theory Mary Renault propounds in The
King Must Die; I don't know where Renault got it.
The names are good throughout. "Othiym" works quite well, I thought,
as did the imagined language of Cretan Linear A. However, in some other
phrases, misspellings ("Fonzi," "Frida Khalo," and others)
and curious minglings of Latin and Greek weakened the appearance of scholarly
knowledge which is necessary to the work.
There are two excellent halves to this book with a rather rickety transition
between them, I thought.
Dylan's appearance was a coup de theatre, and an effective one. It surprised
and non-plussed me completely. As did, in fact, the later re-appearance
of Oliver. This latter, however, was a bit weak as I never quite saw how
he did it. Had the Benandanti kept him out of sight, and out of action,
all this time - and while matters went from bad to worse with his former
inamorata in the way of taking over the world? If there is a power struggle
which kept the Benandanti from acting earlier and more effectively, we are
not shown it. Is he just wearing drag for ... well, what reason? Has he
indeed, magically or whatever, become female? Did his little bit of do-it-yourself
surgery succeed? (Tim Powers, call your office!) Hmm, wonder if this is
meant as a kind of replay on the extreme offering the priests of Cybele
made to the Great Mother in ancient times...
Sweeney, while a bit abstracted, is not shown as a hermit. How could someone
become as casually famous in the culture as Angelica, and Sweeney still
not know a thing about it? Doesn't she ever look at the Washington POST?
Angelica would have been all over the front of the STYLE section, more than
once, by the point which we have reached in the latter action of the novel.
Just one more nit: The silver Iunula's gleaming, when discovered, had to
be a miracle of the Goddess; Hand should have said so. Silver buried for
centuries--or even for a few weeks in your sideboard--doesn't gleam, normally;
only gold can do that. Especially when Hand also mentions Oliver's silver
pocketknife, "tarnished almost black." It looks careless.
p. 202--"Winesap Computers"--! Oh, come on, Elizabeth Hand! But
I loved the mention of the Smithsonian Castle and the Carousel, intimate
features of my landscape in our twenty years off-and-on residence in the
Washington area. Hand has Washington weather down, too, especially the oppressive
heat in which scenes are chiefly set.
From David Lenander's DARK OF MOON, or the air was BITING
in Butterbur's Woodshed #29, July 96.
Responding to Mary S.
I very much enjoyed your discussion of Hand's Waking the Moon. I
read this book over Wiscon weekend, waiting for programs to start, when
panels turned dull and I couldn't get up to leave the room for disturbing
everyone in my way, in bed at night before falling asleep, etc. I read it
very quickly, and had trouble putting it down. I especially like the beginning,
the description of one's first city, and Washington, D.C. What did you think
of her description of Washington, aside from the oppressive heat? Your point
about the mixing of Latin and Greek is interesting, reminds me of the objections
to "homosexual." I hadn't thought of it while reading the book,
though. Your theory about the variation in style, between the poetic and
powerful passages and rather "flat and plebeian" sections was
interesting. It ties into a discussion I'd like to have taking off from
the critical thesis about style put forth by Eleanor Cameron in one of this
year's Scholarship Award nominees, The Seed and the Vision, a book
I recommend. I have another theory, that she simply didn't have time to
work on the manuscript long enought to poeticize it all to the same degree
(think of Moonwise, Greer Gillman told me at Wiscon that it takes
her very long to write a book-no surprise to anyone here, I'll bet), and
probably doesn't want that effect. But, personally, I'd like a lot more
of it. Your focusing on the early sacrifice of Magda's character underlines
for me the major problem I have with the book.
I don't know if I'm objecting to the same thing that a respected critic
at Wiscon (where the book won this year's Tiptree Award) mentioned objecting
to in the book, a "disastrous ending" (I think that was his word,
but I'm not sure). While Magda's death may be a good foreshadowing of what
will happen to Angelica, I think the problem is that the same damned thing
happens to Angelica. We have a situation where the patriarchy has suppressed
Woman and the Moon for thousands of years, perhaps many millennia, to achieve
the World We (Almost) Know ("Almost," because it isn't quite our
world, but close enough). And no, I'm not speaking up for monthly sacrificing
of males, but the minute-by-minute sacrificing of females is not a better
situation. And our main characters are set up to find a middle-way, something
new, a new option. We don't get it. In fact, the same old same old is restored
at the end of the book. What's the point? I feel like I did at the end of
The Worm Ouroborous. All that reading, for this? (I was only a sophomore
in high school, I didn't know that the future held Moonwise or The
Naked Lunch). Frankly, after showing me that my world is a horrible
place, I don't want you to propose that after all, it's the best we can
hope for. This book betrays any thoughtful reading, unless it's intended
to inspire these kinds of objections. But I don't think so. It represents
a failure of vision so total that the book itself, as well as any sort of
Platonic Eucatastrophe, is utterly betrayed. Not that I didn't love the
beginning. Even most of the book is salvageable, though I'd readily cut
fifty pages, especially of the repetitive sacrifices. It may be that Hand
plans a sequel, in which some new, middle way is found. After all, we do
have the opportunity in Sweeny and her young fellow. But there's not enough
here to indicate much hope in that regard.
This book is unquestionably a great page-turner, and I can certainly accept
arguments that it's mythopoeic, I couldn't argue otherwise, myself. I'll
even go so far as to say that if the MFA goes to this book I'll be able
to say gracious and nice things about it. But although better-written than
(for example) many of De Lint's books, it's not as good a book as The
From Eleanor Farrell's THE VIEW FROM THE STRAND
Written for Butterbur's Woodshed #28 (May 1996)
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominees
Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand
I enjoyed Hand's earlier connected novels, Winterlong and Aestival
Tide, for their dizzyingly decadent settings and opulent style, but
this new book is definitely superior story-telling. It begins with Katharine
Sweeney Cassidy's arrival as a new student at the University of the Archangels
and St. John the Divine, and the beginning of her friendship with the mysterious
and colorful Angelica and Oliver. All three characters are destined to play
a role in the conflict between the Benandanti, the clandestine order controlling
the Divine, and the blood cult of the Moon Goddess.
This brief synopsis doesn't do justice to the complex and well-constructed
plot of this novel. First, the book is enjoyable as an 'alternate universe"
story, as the setting is juxtaposed on that of Catholic University in Washington,
D.C. (as Parnela Dean's Tam Lin took over Carleton College in Minnesota).
The author's treatment of the patriarchal Benandanti [Hand states in her
notes that they really exist, in a more benign state, and I would love to
find out more about them ... ] and the Moon Goddess followers is very well-balanced,
so one finds sympathetic characters on each side without being fed any philosophical
or religious agendas. (Whew!)
From Grace Walker Monk's AND THE WINNER--BRITTLE MOON BELLS!
April 28, 1996
Waking the Moon wore me out in every good way possible. I read this book
like a maniac. I couldn't get the words in quick enough. I read it while
nursing the baby, cooking dinner, at red lights, while the (slow) printer
was going. Yes there were some problems with it, but they failed to cloud
the overall experience. Big, big fun. And the connections to other favorite
books was wonderful. The Tombs of Atuan, That Hideous Strength,
The Other Side of the Sun, -- it was like a feast of memory.
This book also deserves some heavy consideration for the short list, and
the award. It seems mythic, and the ending (which soared above my every
expectation, I thought Dylan was a goner!) perhaps places it in the spirit
of the Inklings. It is a story about which I can joyfully say, I can't wait
to read it again! My only real problem was the change from first person
to third person in the narrative; sometimes I lost the thread. Yet many
things rang true, from the sublime to the strange, Sweeney's desperate love
for Oliver, her desire to fit in and be extraordinary, her loneliness were
so heartfelt that I ached with her. And I really liked Annie. True independence
is always refreshing. The description of Oliver's shaved head reminded me
of my husband, who did shave his own head once with a disposable bic razor
and foolishly put rubbing alcohol on the cuts. And he didn't have the drug
excuse! Just good old rock and roll nuttiness (and Collin is also pretty
darn gorgeous, even without the blue eyes). I do have one technical question
for you knowledgeable folks: In ch. 12, " The Priestess at Huitaca,"
one of Angelica's incantations includes the word or name "Zenunim."
In Madeleine L'Engle's book, The Other Side of the Sun, a family
that is involved with ancient pagan rituals is named "Zenumin,"
which is obviously very close to the word Elizabeth Hand uses. Who is shading
who? Is Zenunim an old godigoddess name, or is Hand echoing L'Engle, or
is this all chance? Any enlightenment from any of you scholars? I would
be most grateful.
Like I stated, short and hopefully sweet this time. After the overall discouragement
of last year's list, I am so happy with this year's list, and whoever wins
will at least have the merit of being in good company and competition.
The 1995 MFA/MSA Comments page
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