"My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead" and other pretty things

This collection of short stories about love, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, has a weird name. But it’s pretty.

It took me a while to get through this one. I can read a book a week usually but I was nursing this one like a warm beer, and I like warm beer. That’s not to say it isn’t good, it’s just that the good takes a long time to find, and when it comes, you lose it again when the story ends. This may be a symptom of how I read, though–I’m not a huge fan of short story collections. Usually I read them in combination with a novel and switch off when I grow tired of one or the other.

Honestly, the two things I loved best about this compilation were the story by Nabokov and Eugenides’s own introduction. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” is everything a short love story should be and all you’ve come to expect from Nabokov.

Eugenides begins the book with a rumination on his short story choices and on what inspired him to become a writer. As a child, Eugenides learned about the Latin poet Catallus in his English class and read his poetry, meant to sound like birdsong. He describes the experience he had realizing that this poem, written two thousand years ago, had reached his ears as if by fate. It was then that he discovered the power of the written word. Whether or not this story is true, it makes for an effective introduction. Catallus was incidentally the first poet to write about a specific person in the context of love, rather than writing about love broadly and without object, as was the norm.

Photo Oct 31, 11 27 32 AMBut the part of the introduction that really tugged at my heartstrings was this passage:

It is perhaps only in reading a love story (or in writing one) that we can simultaneously partake of the ecstasy and agony of being in love without paying a crippling emotional price. I offer this book, then, as a cure for lovesickness and an antidote to adultery. Read these love stories in the safety of your single bed. Let everybody else suffer. (xvii)

While I disagree obviously with the sentiment that it’s better to stay in bed and read stories than fall in love, I do think Eugenides has pinpointed the exact reason many of us read to begin with: to experience euphoria and despair, and safely. We read about love so that we may fall in love.

The collection features some literary giants, and you may even have read some of these famous short stories already. My favorites were “Spring in Fialta” by Nabokov, “The Lady with the Little Dog” by Chekhov, “Mouche” by Guy de Maupaussant, “The Moon in its Flight” by Gilbert Sorrentino, and “Yours” by Mary Robison. Those are the ones that stand out most in my memory when I scan the table of contents and the ones that affected me most while I was reading.

I think I liked the idea of this book better than the book itself. Some stories were stagnant and fell flat, while others glittered with beauty and rang with truth. Still others were too long or too short, which was jarring and disrupted the pace of the book.

I don’t recommend reading it like you would read a novel, from start to finish. Rather, pick it up at random one day when you’re looking for a quick fix. The stories included are not simple, however. They’re complex and challenging and frightening. Like love.

References

Eugenides, J. (2008) My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead. New York, NY: HarperCollins

Successful Historical Fiction, "Green Darkness" by Anya Seton

When I was fourteen and fifteen, a young freshman in high school, I devoured historical fiction. And no, Philippa Gregory, I’m not looking at you. It started when I read The Memoirs of Cleopatra in ninth grade, a tome that took me a month to read and caused many stares among my teachers when I carried it around the halls. I had a love for reading about historical figures as if they were living and breathing beside me and found that I learned much more about actual historical events in this manner, rather than in the dry form it was delivered to us in school. I read a dozen books by Jean Plaidy, a couple by Margaret George, Antonia Fraser, and Alison Weir before I stumbled upon Anya Seton.

Years later, I still love historical fiction but my bar has been set a lot higher. Years of research have made me a skeptical reader. But I still love reading fictionalized versions of history, especially ones that do not feature an actual queen, king, or princess, but ones that use historical setting to tell a story with unique, well-developed characters. These characters have to do two different things simultaneously, and flawlessly, in order to be believable in a historical setting and interesting to a modern audience: they have to act like they would in the past yet speak to some modern issue. It’s very difficult, and can descend quickly into kitsch if not done well. Anya Seton’s Green Darkness is one of those examples of successful historical fiction.

It’s a little gimmicky in the beginning. In the late 1960s, a young American woman named Celia has just married an English noble. It was a whirlwind romance–they met and married on a boat and claimed love at first sight. A year later, Celia’s husband Richard has become taciturn and withdrawn, and Celia bored and unhappy. When Celia and Richard both suffer emotional breakdowns and hover near death, an Indian mystic recognizes their symptoms and suggests an alternative to Western medicine: an exorcism-like reliving of their past life in order to free them of it. The themes of this novel are reincarnation, the power of cause and effect, and the ways in which our lives–and past lives–influence our souls and the lives of those around us.

There are two main sections of this novel, the one set in the 70s and the one set in the Tudor period of England, during the tumultuous reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary I. There are several reasons why this novel works. One reason is the setting; the other are the characters.

Setting the novel during the Tudor period is trite and overdone. There are so many novels that deal with Henry VIII’s six wives, and with Queen Elizabeth’s reign, whether it features Shakespeare or the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or with Elizabeth’s controversial claim of virginity, that the Tudor period has been so thoroughly canvassed it seems like nothing new can be described. However, Seton chose brilliantly to set her novel almost exclusively within the reigns of Edward and Mary, and in doing so, manages to shed light on a violent period of English history. We learn about the politics of religion during this time period and how believing in–or indeed, even speaking about–the wrong religion could not only impoverish you, it might send you to the stake.

Factions appear in the social landscape of the novel: the Catholics and the Protestants. When Edward is on the throne, all must shut up their chaplains and hide their rosary beads. When Mary is on the throne, they must redact their previous positions and extol the virtues of Catholicism, or else be burned. The political atmosphere of the novel produces some interesting characters and taught me a lot about an often-overlooked period of English history, nestled as it is between those two giants Henry and Elizabeth.

Then there are the characters. Celia, the previous edition of the modern Celia, is an impoverished tavern girl with slightly noble relatives. Her poor but well-bred aunt takes her under her wing when Celia is fourteen, and the young girl spends some time in the luxurious Cowdray Castle. There, she takes faith classes from Brother Stephen, a devout monk disciplined to the point of self-mutilation, and horrified at the Protestant changes occurring in England. Much to Brother Stephen’s chagrin, confusion, and horror, Celia falls in love with him.

The results are complicated, tragic, and vivid. This novel is not a romance, yet it is romantic. And at its heart is the question: who pays for our actions in life? If karma is real, how many lifetimes of service to others will cleanse our souls? And if we do meet again those we’ve known in previous lives, how do our past lives affect our present one?

Celia is not your typical romance-novel heroine. She begins the novel as a timid albeit vain young girl and becomes cynical, brave, and strong in the course of it. Brother Stephen reminds me of a much more moral Arthur Dimmesdale crossed with Orlando Bloom: stoic, self-harming, incredibly religious, yet unfailingly fair and kind. Oh, he’s also supposed to be gorgeous.

The novel has aged a bit since its publication in the 70s, but it’s still a lush, thought-provoking, beautiful book. I read 250+ pages in one sitting, and was entranced. Forty years ago, historical novels were still considered intellectual literature. It is only in recent decades that they have fallen in repute, probably due to subpar writers appropriating the genre and sullying its name (Philippa Gregory, now I’m looking at you). Green Darkness and the entire Seton collection reminds us what great historical fiction can be. Good literature of all genres introduces readers to new worlds, and that’s exactly what historical fiction does, except it has the power to teach us about world history, our roots, and the way we can relate to people from ages past.

References

Seton, A. (1972) Green Darkness. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Timeless Literature and its Opposite: the Lesson of "Angel"

One of my favorite books is Angel by author Elizabeth Taylor. I was first introduced to the novel because I had seen the movie, and loved it. I quickly purchased the book. Angelica “Angel” Deverell is a fifteen-year-old girl living with her poor mother above their shop. She frequently invents stories about herself, her favorite of which is that her mother was disinherited by her rich family when she married beneath her, and that Angel herself is a wealthy heiress. Angel has a vivid imagination and an arrogant disposition. She also has a gift for writing–overblown, purple-prose, bad-romance-novel kind of writing which she uses to escape her poverty.

Angel writes a romance novel called The Lady Irania and becomes an overnight sensation, a wunderkind. Fanciful and proud, Angel believes herself to be the most talented writer to ever have lived, and lives her life like a queen. But her novels are fluff; they’re on the bestseller list one day and forgotten the next. Throughout, she refuses to acknowledge reality and keeps inventing stories about herself, until they become reality to her.

Joining Angel are a cast of lively, complex characters either besotted with her, amused by her antics, or those completely absorbed with hatred for her. The novel is Austen-esque in the way it deals with the subtle nuances of people’s personalities and their flaws. It also has the same kind of quiet, dry humor that makes reading Austen such fun.

Taylor has little to no sympathy for Angel in the novel. Her tone is biting and sarcastic, and she makes it clear that she is indicting all bad-romance novelists for believing their work is timeless and meaningful. Taylor presents for contrast the artist Esme Howe-Nevinson, a struggling artist whose works are not popular and would not be popular for generations after. The dichotomy of Esme’s underappreciated work and Angel’s fast fad literature calls to mind our own time, with the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey topping the bestseller lists over intellectual literary fiction. Nothing has changed.

Angel reminds us of the undeniable power of timeless literature that transcends social and cultural boundaries to deliver truths from ages past. One thinks of the classics, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, but also of the books published in our own time that will doubtless become the literature our grandchildren will read.

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Now as for the movie. I cannot possibly be unbiased about the movie. I simply love it. I stumbled upon the movie over four years ago when I was stuck home and looking for something to watch. I read the description of the movie from the On Demand menu and chose it at random. I think the description was something like, “The rise and fall of a young eccentric British writer, in the early 20th century.” I read that and thought, “British writer? Early 20th century? Yeah I’ll watch that.” When it began I saw Romola Garai on screen and literally cheered. She’s one of my favorite actresses and has played some of my favorite literary characters. Really–it’s uncanny.

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Garai’s Angel is a complex mix of arrogance, vulnerability, naiveté, and a certain measure of cruelty. The cruelty stems from the fact that she alters reality around her to suit her fanciful visions of herself, and the people closest to her become casualties. To put it simply, she has enormous delusions of grandeur and lies to make herself seem important. Most interestingly though, she cannot tell the difference between lying about herself and telling stories. Eventually, she believes her own lies and the truth ceases to exist at all.

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I think the Angel in the movie is much more sympathetic than the Angel in the novel. Yes, she’s utterly frustrating in the way a thirteen-year-old girl’s Facebook statuses about her two-week relationship are frustrating, but you can’t help but feel sorry for her. All she wanted was to be special, and when she got it, she had to hold onto it no matter what. And there’s something to be said about an imagination so powerful it can literally change one’s past.

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When I finished the movie, I could not stop thinking about it. It’s a story that burrows into your heart because it triggers some emotion inside you. I saw myself in Angel, in the way I love stories and in my ambition to be a writer. But she is, more than anything else, a warning. You’re not supposed to want to be her. You’re supposed to pity her, and try to avoid her many mistakes.

Plus, Michael Fassbender is in it. Happy and sad things happen. It’s on Netflix Instant. You should watch it.

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Francois Ozon’s direction and set design are entrancing. He uses cheesy green-screen backdrops to illustrate how dramatic and removed from reality Angel is, and the effect is just ridiculous in a great way. It’s much more complex than it seems at first watch.

Angel is a novel meant for writers. And it’s a novel meant for dreamers. I don’t mean either of those things as good, however. Above all, Angel is a cautionary tale meant for those with big egos who choose to live their lives outside of reality. Through Angel, Taylor reminds us to keep our feet on the ground and stay self-aware.

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References

Taylor, E. (1957) Angel. United Kingdom: Virago Press

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My Review of "Conversations with EVE"

I was recently given the opportunity to review a new feminist theory book, written by Barbara Cuthbertson. I enjoyed the book, even though I had several issues with it. The review is now featured on Gender-Focus.com, a website I’ve written for before. If you want to check out the review, here it is! If you do read the review or feel like reading the book, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments.

Since this is a short post, here’s a picture of a wet cat as a bonus:

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Cheers, everyone! Have a great weekend.

Human Kindness & Cruelty: My Review of "Cloud Atlas"

Every now and then a book comes along that grabs you by the throat and threatens to never let go. It’s uncommon and infuriating and wonderful. When you’re reading, nothing else exists and when you’re finished, just thinking about the book sends shivers through your body again. Does no one else feel this? If they don’t, then it’s time they picked up Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas seems simple: there are six narrators each with his own memoir/diary-type section. The first is set in the mid-1800s, the second in the 1930s, the third in the 1970s, the fourth in 2001, the fifth in a not-so-distant dystopian future, and the last on a post-apocalyptic island inhabited by a tribal people. The stories are connected in that the next narrator is reading the diary/memoir/autobiography of the previous one. In the first half of the novel, each narrative stops abruptly, and in the second half of the novel, each story continues and they appear in descending order, tying up loose ends and completing the story (for the most part). And just in case this wasn’t a bit too confusing already, five of the six narrators are related in some way [I don’t want to spoil it!].

pictured: the rock I use to keep books open when I write about them

pictured: the rock I use to keep books open when I write about them 😉

There are many reasons why I loved this novel and why I think about it all the time. Obviously, with six narrators, the narrative has a lot of opportunities to become confusing, but Mitchell is such a nuanced and detailed writer that no confusion occurs. Not only does the author give each character a distinct voice, personality, and unmistakable speech habits, but also, each section of the novel is a completely different genre altogether. These aspects of the novel, coupled with the vibrance of the many settings and the elegance of the prose, elevates this story from gimmicky to profound. That’s why I was so disappointed with the movie: they kept the raw bones of the story but stripped it of what made it powerful–tragedy, loss of humanity, and humankind’s capacity for cruel and absolute power, both over the Earth and over others. They made it into a kitschy, easily-digestible story with a neat and frankly, a laughable ending. Cloud Atlas the novel is far superior and far more entrancing.

The first “novella” is the story of an American notary making his way back to San Francisco on a treacherous journey from the Chatham Islands; the second is that of a roguish bisexual composer writing to his former lover; in the third, a feminist investigative reporter in the 70s faces the scoop of a lifetime and sexism at every turn; in the fourth an aging vanity publisher finds himself [hilariously] incarcerated in a nursing home; in the fifth, a clone in a corpocratic Korea regales her executioner with stories of how she became self-aware; and in the sixth and final story, a tribe member in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii becomes acquainted with a “civilized” anthropologist.

Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, Sonmi, Zachry–the names all evoke in me affection and nostalgia and even vestiges of the fear I felt when reading. These are the books that stick with you and change you.

This book is about many things, and to list them all would be foolish and simplistic. Indeed, each story can hypothetically stand independent of the others, so that it’s like reading six distinct novellas, each with vivid characters and its own “point,” so to speak. But a common thread that runs through the narrative(s) is humanity’s relation to others and to the Earth. The first narrator–and the last–is a man named Adam who owes his life to a freed slave. The experience he had with the freed slave causes great changes in Adam’s philosophy and he ruminates on the structure of his current society and, essentially, how we may define humanity and how all of mankind may relate to each other:

If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being…You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this:–one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

This passage, on the second-to-last page of the novel, directly involves the reader, forcing us to answer some difficult questions about humanity’s capacity for both cruelty and compassion, kindness and subjugation. Implied on every page of this novel is the fact that people need other people to survive, and not just in societies or communities, but by actively practicing equality, compassion, and generosity. Colonialism destroys the colonizers and the colonized. A society built on consumerism strips away what makes us human and replaces it with a need for things. Indulging our basest instincts–power, greed, cruelty–can only result in the total destruction of mankind.

My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?

And the very last line of the novel reminds us that all of us, as humans, are connected in a vast web of future, past, and present, and that we are all beholden to each other to create a better world to live in.

This novel has become popular recently because of the film adaptation but I want to warn you: stay far, far away from the movie. It’s sappy and childish and the book is a world of its own. Many worlds, actually. Reviewing this book is like reviewing six, just like reading this book is like reading six. If Mitchell had released each section as a short story and fragmented each the way he did in the novel but staggered their releases, we would have a Harry Potter–release-night kind of hysteria on our hands, that’s how addictive these stories are. And it would have made a helluva marketing scheme.

References

Mitchell, D. (2004) Cloud Atlas. New York, NY: Random House

Fairy Tales Retold: "Sirena" and the Femme Fatale

I think YA literature can be a great thing. It’s gotten a bad rap in the past decade with the advent of Twilight and the phenomenon of the paranormal romance genre, but in general, YA introduces young readers to feminism, friendship, mythology, history, and most importantly, the power and beauty of the written word. All of the books I read when I was nine to sixteen years old informed my thinking and interests. From East I learned about Norse mythology. From A Great and Terrible Beauty came my passion for the Victorian era and my knowledge of the complicated nature of those sixty-odd years. Others taught me about pain and strength and courage, and all when I was quite young. My next subject for this spontaneous “Fairy Tales Retold” series follows the same lines of the others: I read this novel when I was about fifteen and it stirred in me an interest in Greek mythology and taught me about sacrifice, love, and the danger of the femme fatale trope.

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Now, Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli is not strictly based on a fairy tale. Rather, it takes place within that giant event of Greek mythology: the Trojan War. However, the main character and narrator is a mermaid (mermaid-siren combo) and given the ubiquity of mermaids in our culture due to the popularity of The Little Mermaid, and knowing details about the plot, I think it fair to say the Hans Christian Andersen tale influenced this novel in no small way.

The novel begins on the island of Anthemoëssa in the Aegean Sea, an island populated by sirens. These sirens are all sisters, the daughters of Eros and “Little Iris,” a fish–thus making this incarnation of sirens mermaids rather than the classic mythological siren who takes the form of half-woman, half-bird (though interpretations differ). The mermaid form is another reason I think pop culture influenced Napoli: mermaids are familiar and relatable in our culture, much more familiar than women who are half-bird. In whatever form, the sirens are both unable to procreate and have the potential for immortality. All they must do to live forever is win the [physical] love of a man. So they sing. They sing to lure sailors to their island and seduce them. Sound familiar?

Among the many siren sisters is the young naïve Sirena. Like her sisters, she adorns herself in seaweed and shells to make herself beautiful for any passing sailors. Her sisters’ one goal is immortality: to lure men to the island even though the sirens know that the island is uninhabitable by humans, and that their arrival means their certain death. Sirena, young and impressionable, does not question the inevitable outcome that the man who falls in love with her will die because of it. But she also does not relish it as her sisters do.

When her sisters manage to shipwreck a crew of men, the men grow mad and violent at their imminent death and in their rage, brutally murder one of Sirena’s sisters. The young mermaid is traumatized after this event and her worldview changes completely. She no longer wishes to be a siren, no longer wishes to enjoy the company of her sisters. She withdraws within herself. The stakes are raised when their de facto mother, Dora, wife of Nereus, tells her sirens about a war: “So mermaids, my ready maidens, the seas are full of Greek ships heading for Troy,” she says, after explaining about the apple of discord and how Paris “stole Helen away to Troy.” (30) Dora warns the mermaids:

You must not be stupid…You are of age, my beauties. This war is your best opportunity. One thousand ships…You must do it perfectly…If you win lovers, my seas can be graced with mermaids forever…Forever and ever. Immortality. (31)

Tempted by immortal life, Sirena nevertheless finds her sisters’ reactions to the news revolting and frankly, terrifying. Sirena implores her sister:

‘The men will die, Alma. They will die for lack of fresh water.’

‘We will sing continually. They will love us.’

‘Even if they love us, they will die.’

Alma, the sweetest of my sisters, now looks at me with hard eyes. ‘They will love us first.’ (35)

The siren’s chilling response and the behavior of the entire population weighs heavily on Sirena and she leaves her colony. She settles on the island of Lemnos, and soon meets Philoctetes, who has been marooned on the island because of a snakebite from one of Hera’s serpents (lifted directly from a legend). Sirena, who has vowed never to sing again, finds herself as a woman in relation to a man, rather than what she believed she was doomed to become: a monster.

The trope of the femme fatale has been around since the Trojan War was first conceived and earlier. Rooted in misogyny, the femme fatale trope is a symptom of the belief that a man’s lust and sexual frustration are a woman’s fault. Men want to be chaste and faithful, but women are snakes and they’re succubi and they can kill you. It’s awful and the worst part about the femme fatale image of women is its pervasion in our society, and not just by (some) men. “Femme Fatale” adorns t-shirts in women’s clothing stores and it’s perceived (by some) as something to be proud of. Femme fatale does not mean female sexuality. It means domination and control over another person, and it means being exploited and objectified because of your sex.

Sadly, “femme fatale” has become synonymous with a strong, sexy woman even though it literally means “deadly woman.” It also perpetuates this fetish-like image of a stony woman with no emotions and no weaknesses as the only desirable female type. We have come from idealizing an emotional, soft-hearted, bird-like woman to idealizing her opposite. The problem with the femme fatale archetype, and all types, is that they enforce the belief that there is a perfect kind of woman. Women, like men, should be allowed to have faults and vulnerabilities and complexity, like every normal human.

That’s the lesson Sirena learns by rejecting her role as femme fatale. It was literally laid out for her, by her “mother” and by her peers, and every single one of her sisters, even the supposedly kind ones, obeyed without question. Sirena alone knew that there was a humanity within her and a complexity she did not wish to suppress. That’s the wonderful part of reading novels like this when you’re young. That’s the power inherent in YA literature, and that’s why I have faith in it. Even when things like this happen.

Why You Should Read It:

For all the reasons mentioned already, but also for the mix of mythology and love. Napoli takes the canon myths and weaves her own story within the walls of the originals, without compromising the integrity or spirit of the myths. The result is an immersion within Greek mythology without feeling like you’re reading an encyclopedia. Characters like Thetis appear, and Oenone, and no explanation follows. Readers come to know them as characters rather than as actors on this great stage known as Greek myths. It’s also quite sophisticated. The Hercules of pop (Disney) culture becomes the Heracles of the original myth, homosexuality, immorality, and questionable birth included. Philoctetes appears as a well-rounded character before he earns his place in posterity for killing Paris. In the very first scene of the novel, the sirens attempt to lure a ship to their island but “the song of a lyre played by a master” smothers their seductive music: (4)

We sang, desperation making our songs keen, but our voices were drowned by that magnificent and terrible lyre. At one point the music stopped and we heard a shout: “Play on, Orpheus!” The music played on. No matter how much we sang, the men could no longer hear us. They passed us by. (4)

Little flashes of mythology like that appear throughout the narrative, as if Napoli is winking at those in the know, and for those less versed, she’s urging you to learn. 

The Good and the Bad:

Sirena’s voice and narration is simple and sometimes descends into juvenility. While her character and personality are complex and become more so during the arc of the novel, her voice remains stagnant. It’s a shame, because this story has a lot of potential. Another weakness of the novel is the first-person, present-tense point of view, which may be responsible for the dullness of the prose. Many of the sentences follow an “I do this” or an “I feel this” structure, which can get boring. It isn’t dynamic and it isn’t very gripping. The novel is worth a read however, and since it’s YA (intelligent YA, though it’s a shame I feel the need to use that disclaimer), it should not take long.

Read it for the pleasure of watching the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of a young siren. Read it for the pleasure of sinking headfirst into a mythological world. Read it to shift the focus on a story we’ve all read many times before, to see new perspectives, and discover new truths.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done. This was long. Please post your thoughts below if you’ve read this far.

References

Napoli, D.J. (1998) Sirena. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Fairy Tales Retold: "East" of the Sun and West of the Moon

This book is on my top ten favorite books list, and for good reason. I’ve come to realize that I very much liked fairy tales as a child, go figure, and this one is unique and enchanting. Rather than a retelling of a Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale, East is a reimagining of the Nordic folktale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” It’s a bit like Beauty and the Beast in the beginning: a beast (in this case, a white bear) approaches a poor man and offers him riches in return for his daughter. The bear takes her to his castle and every night, sleeps beside her in his true form, a beautiful young prince. For a few months the girl burns with curiosity but does not look at who else is sleeping in her bed. When she returns home, her mother gives her a candle to use at night to learn the identity of her nocturnal visitor. When the girl lights the candle, she falls deeply in love with the beautiful prince, but she also drips three drops of tallow on him.

With that act, the spell on him is broken and a worse one takes effect: if the girl had waited just a year without succumbing to her curiosity, the prince would have been transformed back into a man forever. But because she had spied, the prince is now doomed to marry a princess with a “nose three yards long.” The girl asks the prince where she can find him and he responds, “east of the sun and west of the moon.” Thus the girl’s journey begins. On the way, she enlists the help of the East Wind, West Wind, South Wind, and North Wind, and eventually battles her way to the prince’s castle.

The original tale is short and sweet, and East retains many of the details but adds a rich setting, well-developed characters, and a heavy-handed dose of Norse mythology thrown in for good measure. I’ve said before how much this novel influenced my interests as I grew older. The northern atmosphere and the subtle magical setting all played upon my senses as a child and I grew up with a love for the North and a passion for Norse mythology. But back to the story.

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My favorite aspects of this novel are the main character of Rose, the way the story is woven with aspects of Nordic myth, and the author’s own fantastical inventions. Early in the novel readers learn that Rose’s mother believes in the superstition of birth directions: that the direction a woman faces when giving birth bestows on her child a certain set of characteristics–something akin to a horoscope. Eugenia, Rose’s mother, wants one child for every “point of the compass” except for north because they’re unruly wanderers, and because of a prophecy she’d heard that any north-born she bore would be crushed under snow and ice. Due to serendipitous circumstances, her last-born, Rose, is born a North and not an East, as planned. The truth is hidden from Rose and she believes she’s a true, docile East-born.

Thus Rose (whose first name is Ebba, for East) grows up an exploring child, wandering around the fjords, climbing snowy hills, and getting into mischief. She’s a headstrong child, independent and brave. Eventually, the truth of Rose’s birth is revealed, and Rose grows furious with her family (this is the part that seems far-fetched, more so than a talking bear: why was her birth direction such a big issue?). So when the white bear shows up at her door offering her family riches in exchange for her, Rose leaves in part to spite her family, and in part to gain independence.

The story is narrated by five characters: Rose, her brother Neddy, their father, the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. This structure is the weakest aspect of the novel. It falls into the trap that all multi-narrator novels must be wary of: character confusion. Though Rose’s voice is distinct and strong, Neddy and the father are difficult to differentiate past the first fifty pages or so. As for the White Bear, his mastery of English is limited because of his animal form, and his narrative reads like a very bad middle-school lit mag poem. In Pattou’s defense, I can imagine it’s very difficult to give a white bear a believable voice. The author is much more skilled at giving him a believable personality, and a royally tragic backstory to boot.

Rose and the White Bear live harmoniously in his castle for several months. Rose learns that the Bear loves music and used to play the flauto as a human. She develops a rapport with him not unlike that of Beauty and her Beast. They come to trust and depend on each other, until she grows homesick, receives the candle from her mother, and unleashes the curse.

In this point in the narrative, Rose’s voice becomes much stronger. This is my favorite part of the book. The East, West, North, and South Winds of the original story become real people: the drunken captain of a deadly knorr, a French mother and daughter, and an Inuit shaman who leads Rose into the heart of Norse legend: to Niflheim and Asgard, to the realms of the gods. Though the myths are altered to suit the story and some details left frustratingly vague, the beauty of the novel lies in the way it is entwined with spirituality and myth, paganism and magic. Set in the sixteenth century, the story almost seems possible. The descriptions of Niflheim and Asgard are haunting and even frightening at times, and thoroughly entrancing.

The second half of the book is by far the superior. Rose’s journey is incredibly perilous and readers will become inspired by Rose’s determination and her eagerness to correct her mistakes and save the prince. The narrative is layered with Inuit folklore, Inuit traditions and practices, pagan magic, allusions to Norse mythology, and even an allegory for the Jewish Holocaust. Rose, in the process of saving the prince, finds within herself courage and selflessness, and a willingness to sacrifice herself to save not only the man she loves, but all those who have been exploited, abused, and enslaved. Not your average fairy tale, I’d say.

References

Pattou, E. (2003) East. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne, Norske Folkeeventyr (Christiania [Oslo], 1842-1852), translated by George Webb Dasent (1859). Translation revised by D. L. Ashliman. © 2001. Retrieved from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/norway034.html.

Fairy Tales Retold: "Ella Enchanted" and Free Will

When I was nine years old you could find me in the corner of the B&N Children’s Section in the “L” section—for Levine—reading the same copy of Ella Enchanted. I never bought the book. I just read a little bit every time I came, until I finished it. Then I started it over again. Finally, I borrowed a copy from the library—and kept it for three years. When I finally gave it back (and somehow avoided paying the exorbitant fee) I was left bereft. It was my favorite book, and well-thumbed. Thankfully, for something like my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday my sisters bought me a brand-new hardcover copy. The rest is history.

Photo Nov 13, 12 20 19 PMElla Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella, tells the story of a young Ella in the imaginary and magical kingdom of Frell. Her mother passes away suddenly and her greedy merchant father marries a rich woman with two young, doltish, and cruel daughters. So far we’ve got all the major ingredients of the classic tale, but Ella Enchanted has a twist: Ella is under a curse bestowed upon her by the fairy, Lucinda.

The curse Lucinda bestows upon her is a “gift” of obedience. “Ella will always be obedient,” she says. (3) This curse is an excellent plot device as it is responsible for nearly all of Ella’s hardships. Had she not been cursed, she wouldn’t have been exploited by her stepfamily or forced to give up her possessions, and her “happily ever after” would have come easily.

But Ella does not succumb to the effects of the curse without a fight. “Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me,” she says. (5) Ella describes how she evaded the curse by finding loopholes in the commands she’s issued. For example, when her godmother Mandy tells her to “hold the bowl while I beat the eggs,” Ella resents being ordered to do anything, and while holding the bowl, she’d move around the kitchen so Mandy would have to follow her, making it more difficult. (5) Despite her curse, Ella shows strong sense of self and a large measure of mischievousness that is apparent throughout the novel.

The curse, of course, is a metaphor for the expectations of obedience and docility that society places upon women and girls. It may also be interpreted as the feminine ideal that many fairy tales of the past and even of the last fifty years of movies and television have enforced. But what is most notable about Ella’s curse is how she finds liberties within the confines of the curse to exercise her will. Her free will, to be exact.

What is interesting about how the curse operates is that it does not strip away Ella’s free will. One of the biggest reasons why I hated the movie (there are many, the least including Anne Hathaway’s parody of a strong-willed woman) is because the curse forces Ella’s actions. Movie-Ella had no control over her actions; the spell simply took over her body and acted for her as if she were a puppet. The oversimplification of the curse robbed it of its allegorical power.

Contrarily, in the novel, the curse includes symptoms of dizziness, concentrated pain, buzzing of the ears, vertigo, and nausea if she does not obey. But ultimately, the decision to obey is Ella’s. She has free will but forces of nature and of society, metaphorically, work against her. If she does not obey, she runs the very real risk of bodily harm and it is suggested, even death. This metaphor of the curse calls attention to all the societal pressures that are packaged with the female identity and how difficult it is to resist gender norms and establish one’s identity outside of societal expectations and the feminine ideal.

Ella excels at gaining small areas of ground by disobeying while obeying the curse, as described. She’s an example of a free-thinking woman living in a patriarchal system, doing what she can to make herself happy. However, she also knows that the curse may be broken and that it can only be broken by herself, and by no one else. The scene in which she breaks the curse is poignant, powerful, and my favorite passage of the novel:

Then I lost sense of it all. I went on rocking and crying, but my thought burrowed within, concentrated in a point deep in my chest, where there was room for only one truth: I must save Char. For a moment I rested inside myself, safe, secure, certain, gaining strength. In that moment I found a power beyond any I’d had before, a will and a determination I would never have needed if not for Lucinda, a fortitude I hadn’t been able to find for a lesser cause. (226) (emphasis mine)

Ella displays such formidable strength and finds that strength wholly within herself. It is that strength which was always at her fingertips, the strength she always possessed that would have allowed her to break the curse, but she needed reason enough. For Ella, saving the man she loves is enough for her to be able to break the curse. In Levine’s estimation, love—equal, honest love—transcends social boundaries and expectations and can result in uncommon happiness despite societal norms. Stepsisters still exist, there is still a king and queen and a patriarchy, but Levine suggests that with personal strength any girl can overcome these forces. Every girl can break her “curse.”

Also notable is that Ella “refused to become a princess” even though she marries a prince. (231) Instead she opts for the titles “Court Linguist” and “Cook’s Helper,” titles that call attention to her skills and knowledge rather than to her status as a royal’s wife. (231)

One last thing:

Now it was over. Ended forever. I was made anew. Ella. Just Ella. Not Ella, the slave. Not a scullery maid. Not Lela. Not Eleanor. Ella. Myself unto myself. One Me. (228)

And now I must affirm the influence of that passage above upon my nine-year-old psyche. Strange as it sounds, ridiculous as it sounds, Ella Enchanted may have turned the pre-preteen me into a tiny little feminist.

References

Levine, G.C. (1997) Ella Enchanted. New York, NY: HarperCollins

Fairy Tales Retold: Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” and Feminism

Beauty will forever be immortalized in my memory as the first book I ever ordered on Amazon (the first of many). I was thirteen years old and I’d found Beauty on a shelf in the Children’s Section of Barnes & Noble but the edition was paperback, and I vowed to have a hardcover. Robin McKinley, I know now, was the winner of the Newbery Medal for her novel The Hero and the Crown, but back then, all I knew about McKinley’s first novel was that it was a retelling of a fairy tale. I bought it because it reminded me of my favorite book at the time, Ella Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella, of course.

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Why I Loved It:

Beauty does what every good “remake” or retelling of a classic story should do: it elevates the story by fleshing out the characters, interpreting the events for a contemporary audience, and all the while retaining the spirit and atmosphere of the original story. I’d even argue that Beauty goes a step further. Given that it is a fairy tale, Beauty offers readers an updated view of femininity, love, and gender identity that the original, by nature, inherently lacks. Beauty is not your typical princess, and neither is Beast your typical monster.

Beauty is written in the first person by the youngest of three sisters, whose names are Grace, Hope, and Honour. Honour, a cheeky child, harrumphs at her name when she learns the meaning of the word and states that she “would rather be Beauty.” (3-4) The nickname sticks, and our heroine has an unconventional name that belies her intelligence, talent, and independence. The name also, as Beauty laments, is inaccurate in the narrator’s opinion. She’s a plain girl with sallow skin and flat, dun-colored hair. Compared to her beautiful, light-eyed sisters, Beauty feels visually inadequate and as an adolescent, devotes herself to her studies in order to compensate. She describes her evenings spent alone “translating Sophocles” and how she grew to hate her nickname because it called attention to the fact that she was not beautiful at all. (9)

Beauty’s voice is strong and self-aware. Here is a heroine immediately relatable because of her insecurities and strength. Though her sisters Grace and Hope are both well-rounded characters with autonomy and considerable brainpower, they both pursue love and marriage and “happily ever afters” like traditional “princesses,” while Beauty defies gender expectations by performing much of the manual labor on her farm and leading an intellectual life. She has little interest in men and even rejects the advances of a well-intentioned man because she’d rather enjoy her freedom. It’s interesting that Beauty expresses the opinion that physical beauty is more of a hindrance than an asset. She grows to appreciate her plainness because it unencumbers her from the male gaze.

Reading this story through Beauty’s eyes is a pleasure. She’s feisty and smart and just a touch self-deprecating. She’s also selfless and not in the tiring, feminine-ideal kind of way. When her father delivers the devastating news that a beast has demanded one of his daughters, Beauty volunteers herself, not only to save her father’s life and the lives of her sisters and nieces, but also to prove her worth apart from her family and away from societal expectations. She asks herself, “Why was I so determined? I believed that my decision was correct, that I and no other should fulfill the obligation; but a sense of responsibility, if that was what it was, did not explain the intensity of my determination.” (81) She’s a believable mix of ego and insecurity, selfishness and selflessness that is highly relatable.

Beast, too, is a surprise. Born and bred to Disney movies, readers may be expecting the gruff, impatient, even violent Beast of the animated film, but this Beast is rarely any of these things, and never violent. Beast comes across as weary, lonely, and polite, albeit a bit brusque. He also displays marked kindness toward Beauty. He repeatedly tells her she “has nothing to fear” and immediately distances himself when she is uncomfortable or frightened of him. (116) Though Beast loves Beauty quickly, the romance between them blossoms slowly and naturally, built on mutual respect and patience. Beauty gains confidence in her abilities and her appearance while away from her family while Beast becomes more human in her presence and less, well, like a beast. It’s a thin allegory for a successful romantic relationship meant to last. And it’s entrancing with the added magical atmosphere.

Instead of dancing spoons and talking candelabra, the enchanted castle manifests its brand of magic in the form of disembodied voices late at night, anthropomorphized breezes, lush, overgrown gardens, and a castle that rearranges itself to accommodate Beauty’s roaming. For example, whenever she finds herself lost, her bedroom is no further away than down a hallway and around the corner. The magical is subtle and effective, even realistic. Moreover, there is no obvious time period or setting in the novel. It may be Western Europe but it also feels British and also somehow pagan. The effect is a deliberate ambiguity that lends a sense of timelessness to the narrative.

Why You Should Read It: Read it for the feminist take on Beauty and the Beast, which I do believe is similar to Ella Enchanted’s feminist reinterpretation of Cinderella. Read it because it is a sophisticated fairy tale that nevertheless has you rooting for a happy ending, and even, dare I say, a happily ever after.

References

McKinley, R. (1978) Beauty. New York, NY: HarperCollins

You Can Call Me Queenie: My Review of “Small Island”

Having just bought another copy of this book, I found myself reopening it at random and reading paragraphs here and there, and I was absorbed yet again. Small Island is a book I probably wouldn’t have read if it weren’t assigned reading in my study abroad class in London, but now that I’ve read it (and seen the BBC adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch) I find myself thinking about it all the time. Small Island is the story of the influx of Jamaican immigrants to London following World War II. When the British economy was collapsing and good ol’ Mother England found herself in need of cheap labor, she opened her ports to the denizens of her former colonies. Small Island dramatizes the real results of this historic event.Photo Nov 08, 1 33 26 PM

A lively cast of characters propels the events in this novel. First there is Queenie Bligh, a modest woman who comes from poor beginnings in the wild North of England who marries up. Her husband, Bernard, is a proud yet cowardly man touched by bigotry who is nevertheless capable of astonishing kindness. The husband and wife come into contact with a pair of Jamaican immigrants, Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, who enter into a marriage of convenience and find that their perception of England as the kind “mother country” is far from the reality.

The foursome each take their turn at narrating this gorgeous novel, which only rarely falls into cliché. The four first-person narratives are intertwined which could easily have been confusing and tedious, but each character has such a distinctive voice and strong personality that it is so easy to get caught up in the story and become seriously emotionally invested in the characters. It’s akin to reading a very detailed diary.

Levy adds to the story, as the daughter of Jamaican parents, the use of Jamaican Patois (or Creole) in the narratives of Hortense and Gilbert. This accurate use of language lends another level of reality to the events and allows readers a more in-depth insight into the thought processes of the characters. It’s like when you watch a British movie and start thinking in a British accent (or something like that). I never felt like the author was present in the book; her voice was completely superseded by her characters’, which is the mark of a well-written first-person novel. Four first-persons, to be exact.

The novel’s poignance lies in the depiction of the reality of life for many Jamaican immigrants. Their lives were full of hardships from the second they stepped onto English soil. Many were met with violent racism, turned away from jobs because of their race, and lived in government housing with terrible conditions. Moreover, many found that their perception of England as loving “mother country” was little more than propaganda. In the novel, Gilbert says:

All we ex-RAF servicemen who, lordly in our knowledge of England, had looked to those stay-at-home boys to inform them that we knew what to expect from the Mother Country. The lion’s mouth may be open…but we had counted all its teeth….only now were we ex-servicemen starting to feel its bite. (268-269)

The novel takes you deep inside the cultural history of Britain during this time period and inspires sympathy for the characters, both black and white.

The historical setting is well presented and the characters are strong and well-developed but the real beauty of this novel is how it tugs at your heartstrings (Yes, I’m a sap, let’s move on). While Bernard is away fighting in India and briefly MIA, Queenie meets and falls in love with Michael, a Jamaican immigrant and ex-RAF soldier. The two enjoy a brief affair but Queenie is crushed when Michael leaves for Canada and does not invite her to accompany him. Unbeknownst to Michael, Queenie bears his child, a biracial child whom Queenie knows will face enormous social obstacles in his life with a white mother in a racist world. Bernard, when he learns of his wife’s infidelity and more importantly, the race of the man who impregnated his wife, surprisingly accepts the responsibility of raising his wife’s illegitimate child as his own, despite the child’s race. Queenie’s heartbroken response sheds bright light on the difficulties blacks faced in England in the 1940s:

He’s coloured, Bernard…and he’s not your son…You might think you can do it now while he’s a little baby saying nothing. But what about when he grows up? A big, strapping coloured lad. And people snigger at you in the street and ask you all sorts of awkward questions. Are you going to fight for him?….Are you going to be proud of him? Glad that he’s your son?….One day he’ll do something naughty and you’ll look at him and think, The little black bastard, because you’ll be angry. And he’ll see it in your eyes. You’ll be angry with him not only for that. But because the neighbours never invited you round….And all because you had a coloured child. (431)

I have to say, even if this book never crosses your path, take the time to watch the BBC film. The acting is top-notch and the ending will make you cry (me cry—it’ll make me cry).

References

Levy, A. (2004) Small Island. New York, NY: Picador.