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.

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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

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An Extended Ride North

Didn’t I beat it into your heads yet how much I love the North? Now, my dream vacation is something like Niflheim/Iceland/Oslo/a Viking Ship/the North Pole* all rolled into one, or maybe that treacherous expedition Frankenstein goes on (albeit without all the letter-writing and death) but on February 14 of next year, I will officially be on my way to Alaska.

play this while you read

As Stars serenades you, allow me to regale you with pre-stories about my trip. My best friend and I have been planning to visit Alaska since we were wee ones in middle school. Now that we’re both largely unemployed, we’ve decided that this is a good opportunity to scrape together some pennies and see the northern lights. We’re going to two of Alaska’s biggest cities: Anchorage and Fairbanks. All of the parkas, we will need. I may love the north but I have a low threshold for cold, despite how much I look forward to winter every year. Thank goodness I didn’t throw out those Uggs yet. Can you buy hand warmers in bulk?

Colorful-Aurora-Borealis-in-Finland

We’re at a solar maximum so I’m expecting the above six out of the five nights we’re staying.

On another note, please listen to Stars if you don’t already love them.

*maybe with a penguin or two thrown in there

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DIY: I put flowers on my feet

Over the weekend I sat down and devoted some hours to doing these DIY tapestry boots. I had the day to myself and the whole first season of The OC to watch (it was a great day). I had recently ordered a pair of boots and some tapestry fabric cheaply in order to recreate a pair of Jeffrey Campbells that aren’t available anymore. As an added bonus, with all the supplies, these boots only cost me about $50. It was my birthday present to me 🙂 Take a look at my DIY tapestry boots!

DIY tapestry boots

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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.

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Tapestry Boots

I can’t get enough of floral print. It’s the unashamed girly-girl in me who positively squeals over a good floral print on virtually anything, but mostly on shoes. A while ago I saw these on the Internet:

RUMBLE FAB

by Jeffrey Campbell at Solestruck.

but they were sold out. Now I would revisit these beauties from time to time and sigh in exasperation and feel the pangs of unfulfilled love and know that there was a shoe-shaped hole in my heart (actually, two holes) that would never be filled. But then I remembered: I like DIY, and I never let anything go. 

So I decided to make them myself, yet again. (This is the fourth time I’ve done this.)

The charm of these boots is the shape of the heel and the height of the shaft. I scurried around the Internet for a while and found these on 6PM.com. I got the $79 shoes in Cognac for a measly $29 due to a serendipitous sale and an additional 10% off coupon.

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For the fabric, I found a floral tapestry with a black backdrop that I may like even better than the blue/cream combination pictured above, because the dark color will work well in winter paired with dark tights. The original pair is more of a spring boot, but it’s winter now and my feet are cold (and thoroughly un-floral).

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I can’t wait to put them together. Pictures of the process to come.

And yes, I am obsessed. Let’s move on.

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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.

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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

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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

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British Library Exhibition: All the Pretty Books

Warning: book love overload up ahead. Last year in London I attended this exhibition at the British Library called “Writing Britain: From Wastelands to Wonderlands.” The exhibition displayed the handwritten notebooks, annotated books, and first editions of a wide array of British writers and novelists stretching back to Shakespeare. Needless to say, it was one of the best exhibits I’ve ever seen. The exhibition encompassed authors and writers as varied as Tolkien, Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth, Austen, Rowling, even John Lennon.

My head was spinning. Every part of the exhibit left me in awe.

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Shakespeare’s As You Like It

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Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd above and below

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Charlotte Bronte

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William Wordsworth

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George Eliot

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Wordsworth, again

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John Keats!

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JOHN LENNON

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Emily Bronte

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JK Rowling

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Jane Austen, Persuasion

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles

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Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

It was amazing.

 

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