I have waited nine years to see VS Naipaul. The last time he was in town, he was fresh from his Nobel win, and I was still star-struck from my introduction to his work in a postcolonial lit class. I bought tickets the day they went on sale. Unfortunately for me, Joe took ill (or so he claimed!) about half an hour before the talk, and I didn’t make it. Lucky for me, Naipaul is a prolific author much sought after on tour, so I did get to see him recently. My latest NRI piece reflects on the talk, and the lack of Indians in the audience. Here’s the intro:
V.S. Naipaul is a small man, rounded in the middle and eloquently spoken. His accent is educated and British, his movements sparing, as if all his energy has been spent on interpreting the world, then presenting it in text. Naipaul, at 78, is an archetypal, intellectual NRI: born in Trinidad, he’s a postcolonial novelist, often writing on some level about the sense of belonging, or lack thereof, felt by NRIs; in 2007, he called on his fellow Trinidadians to let go of Indian and African, and instead embrace Trinidad. He’s been criticized for his pro-Western views, his stance on the “Muslim invasion”, and his arguably neo-apologist comments.
P.S. I once stopped Joe from seeing William Gibson. It’s an old argument we fall into pretty easily, and runs much like this:
Joe: You stopped me from seeing William Gibson!
Me: There was a snow storm!
Joe: It was still on! You said they’d cancel, and they didn’t!
Me: We didn’t have a car, there were no buses, and you’d have literally had to walk up a hill knee deep in snow!Read More
We’ve all done it — bought a book based on a good review, passed over another because of a bad review. But why do reviews affect us? And how do they do it?
Once upon a time, only professional reviewers wrote book reviews. The greater the number of publishing credits and letters after your name, the greater your chances of being taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree to work out if you like a book (though in the case of Edward Bloor’s Storytime, you might need an MFA to work out why). And a good review is still a good review—whether it’s over at your friend’s blog, or in the Books section of The New York Times.Read More
Fairy tale literature, once mostly stock standard retellings of The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, is moving on. Old fairy tales are still being retold (Book of a Thousand Days), but new ones are constantly being written, too (Once Upon a Marigold). Of course, that leaves dedicated fairy tale readers like me in a bit of bind–there’s so much to read that sometimes the best books get lost in the bookshelf shuffle. Here’s a list of some of the great fairy tale lit you may have missed. Some titles listed are younger than a YA audience, but fun reads all the same. (Have something to add to the list? Email me, or leave a note in the comments!)
1. BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, Shannon Hale
Hale (River Secrets) delivers another winning fantasy, this time inventively fleshing out the obscure Grimm tale, Maid Maleen, through the expressive and earthy voice of Dashti, maid to Lady Saren. A plucky and resourceful orphan, Dashti comes from a nomad tribe in a place resembling the Asian Steppes, and is brought to the Lady’s house in the midst of a crisis. Lady Saren, having refused to marry the powerful but loathsome Lord her father has chosen, faces seven years’ imprisonment in an unlit tower. Initially, Dashti believes her worth is tied to her ability to care for her “tower-addled” lady until she can join Khan Tegus, to whom she is secretly betrothed. When the gentle Tegus comes to the tower, Dashti must step in for her traumatized lady, speaking to him as Saren through the one tiny metal door. Hale exploits the diary form to convey Dashti’s perspective; despite her self-effacing declaration that “?I draw this from memory so it won’t be right,” the entries reflect her genuinely spirited inner life. The tension between her unstinting loyalty and patience and burgeoning realization of her own strength and feelings for Tegus feels especially authentic. Readers will be riveted as Dashti and Saren escape and flee to the Khan’s realm where, through a series of deceptions, contrivances and a riotously triumphant climax, the tale spins out to a thoroughly satisfying ending.–PW
2. BEAUTY: A RETELLING OF THE STORY OF BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Robin McKinley
Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage. When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, “Cannot a Beast be tamed?” Robin McKinley’s beloved telling illuminates the unusual love story of a most unlikely couple: Beauty and the Beast.–B&N
3. FAIREST, Gail Carson Levine
Levine’s enchanting, intelligent fairy tale, set in a kingdom devoted to singing, lends itself well to full-cast production; this one features 32 voices. Composer Todd Hobin has set Levine’s lyrics to music; Naughton does a terrific job as maid Aza, the narrator, a demanding role that requires near-operatic talents. Homely Aza, abandoned at birth, not only sings like a lark, she can throw her voice and mimic others, a skill she calls illusing. In a chance meeting, the treacherous new queen, whose abrasive voice has a Valley Girlesque quality, discovers Aza’s talent and blackmails the girl into secretly providing her voice for all of the queen’s public singing. Additional background music augments the many perilous predicaments Aza finds herself in, as well as providing a backdrop to the fairy-tale romance that develops between her and Prince Ijori. –PW
4. THE STINKY CHEESEMAN, AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES, Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith
Scieszka and Smith, the daring duo responsible for revealing The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Viking, 1989), return here with nine new exposes, all narrated by the ubiquitous Jack (of Beanstalk fame). Unlike the detailed retelling of the pigs’ tale, most of these stories are shortened, one-joke versions that often trade their traditional morals for hilarity. “The Stinky Cheese Man” is an odoriferous cousin to the gingerbread boy; when he runs away, nobody wants to run after him. “The Other Frog Prince” wheedles a kiss only to reveal that he is just a tricky frog (as the princess wipes the frog slime off her lips); the Little Red Hen wanders frantically in and out of the book squawking about her wheat, her bread, her story, until she is finally (and permanently) squelched by Jack’s giant. The broad satire extends even to book design, with a blurb that proclaims “NEW! IMPROVED! FUNNY! GOOD! BUY! NOW!” and a skewed table of contents crashing down on Chicken Licken and company several pages after they proclaim that the sky is falling. The illustrations are similar in style and mood to those in the earlier book, with the addition of more abstraction plus collage in some areas. The typeface, text size, and placement varies to become a vital part of the illustrations for some of the tales. Clearly, it is necessary to be familiar with the original folktales to understand the humor of these versions. Those in the know will laugh out loud. –Susan L. Rogers, Chestnut Hill Academy, PA for School Library Journal
5. TITHE, Holly Black
Kaye is 16 when she finally learns why she’s such a strange young woman: she’s a changeling pixie under a spell. A move home to the New Jersey shore brings her back in touch with her childhood friends, the solitary fey, who want to end their servitude to the higher-born faeries by foiling the sacrifice of human blood known as the Tithe. Kaye offers to masquerade as a human for the Tithe and is swept into a complicated net of politics and treason between two rival courts of faeries. Grim scenes from Kaye’s life in the human world pile up at the beginning of the story in what initially seems a gratuitous manner (her mother is almost stabbed by her current boyfriend, Kaye steals for thrills, a new acquaintance tries to rape her), but the details all have explanations later on in the equally grim world of the faeries. The plot moves quickly, and the secondary characters are appealing, if not always entirely believable. Occasional awkward changes in point of view won’t discourage readers who enjoy dark, edgy fantasy. However, the excessive use of obscenities adds little to character development. Thegreatest strength of the story lies in the settings, particularly the descriptions of the debased Unseelie Court.-Beth Wright, Fletcher Free Library, Burlington, VT for School Library Journal
6. ONCE UPON A MARIGOLD, Jean Ferris
In a gratifying fantasy that contains elements of classic fairy tales, Ferris (Love Among the Walnuts) breathes new life into archetypal characters by adding unexpected and often humorous dimensions to their personalities. The protagonist, Christian, has been raised in the forest by a troll named Edric. As he nears manhood, Christian decides it is time to see the world-or at least the section across the river, where the lovely Princess Marigold resides. Having spent many hours gazing at Marigold through a telescope and corresponding with her by “p-mail” (letters sent by carrier pigeon), he has already felt the sting of Cupid’s arrow by the time he lands a job in court. Marigold readily returns his affections, but unfortunately, she is about to become betrothed to Sir Magnus. Meanwhile, Marigold’s evil mother, Queen Olympia, is plotting to murder both Marigold and her kindly, doting father, King Swithbert. Readers swept into the lighthearted spirit of this novel will likely not be bothered by the predictability of outcomes. As in fairy tales of old, jabs are made at social values and norms, and concepts of nobility and ignobility are painted in very broad strokes. Nonetheless, heroes and heroines emerge as convincing, well-rounded characters embodying flaws as well as virtues. Their foibles-Edric’s tendency to mix up adages, Christian’s stubborn streak and Marigold’s penchant for “awful” jokes-make the good guys all the more endearing.–PW
7. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, Dianna Wynne Jones
Sophie Hatter reads a great deal and soon realizes that as the eldest of three daughters she is doomed to an uninteresting future. She resigns herself to making a living as a hatter and helping her younger sisters prepare to make their fortunes. But adventure seeks her out in the shop where she sits alone, dreaming over her hats. The wicked Witch of the Waste, angered by “competition” in the area, turns her into a old woman, so she seeks refuge inside the strange moving castle of the wizard Howl. Howl, advertised by his apprentice as an eater of souls, lives a mad, frantic life trying to escape the curse the witch has placed on him, find the perfect girl of his dreams and end the contract he and his fire demon have entered. Sophie, against her best instincts and at first unaware of her own powers, falls in love. So goes this intricate, humorous and puzzling tale of fantasy and adventure which should both challenge and involve readers. Jones has created an engaging set of characters and found a new use for many of the appurtenances of fairy talesseven league boots and invisible cloaks, among others. At times, the action becomes so complex that readers may have to go back to see what actually happened, and at the end so many loose ends have to be tied up at once that it’s dizzying. Yet Jones’ inventiveness never fails, and her conclusion is infinitely satisfying. Sara Miller, White Plains Public Library, N.Y. for School Library Journal
Because fairy tales are scary, not PC, and outdated.
Too Frightening for Children
It’s not surprising that some parents find fairy tales frightening. Children are abandoned in forests (Hansel and Gretel), sent away to be killed (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), kidnapped and/or sold (Rapunzel), even married early to creepy old widowers (Bluebeard). Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl dies on the street, forgotten and unloved, clinging to a memory of her dead grandmother and her dream of a real home.
Who’s avoiding fairy tales:
- 3000 parents polled
- Almost 20% won’t read Hansel & Gretel
- 20% don’t like reading The Gingerbread Man
- 33% refuse to read Little Red Riding Hood
- 66% say fairy tales have stronger morality messages than modern kidlit
- 75% try to avoid scary stories before bedtime
- 50% will not consider reading a fairy tale to their child until they reached the age of five
Fairy tales were not always the province of children, though children weren’t shielded from them, either. As Maria Tatar, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and Chair of Folklore & Mythology at Harvard University 2005 wrote in an article for Slate–
“[Fairy tales] started out as adult entertainment—violent, bawdy, melodramatic improvisations that emerged in the evening hours, when ordinary chores engaged the labor of hands, leaving minds free to wander and wonder. Fairy tales, John Updike has proposed, were the television and pornography of an earlier age—part of a fund of popular culture (including jokes, gossip, news, advice, and folklore) that were told to the rhythms of spinning, weaving, repairing tools, and mending clothes. The hearth, where all generations were present, including children, became the site at which miniature myths were stitched together, tales that took up in symbolic terms anxieties about death, loss, and the perils of daily life but also staged the triumph of the underdog.”
We Love Fairy Tales
There are no original fairy tales–not really. There are earliest recorded versions, and literary versions, and retellings, but fairy tales are fluid. Details, like names and places and even supporting characters change, though central themes usually stay the same from telling to telling, because said themes are part of what makes up any given fairy tale.
Although we can’t trace the origin of a specific fairy tale, we can use fairy tales to illustrate the common origins of humanity. Why? Because many popular fairy tales exist, in some form, all over the world. The commonalities in many tales are so widespread that folklorists use a kind of catalogue, the Aarne-Thompson classification system, for keeping track of tales by their common elements. (Cinderella stories are AT-510 (with sub-types A and B) while Beauty and the Beast stories are AT-425.)
Folklorists aren’t the only ones who love fairy tales. Retellings, such as Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl and Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound are still popular with the teen set; The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Caps for Sale, two softer tales, do brisk trade as picture books. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Coraline, original fairy tales with strong ties to fairy tale themes and tropes, are bestsellers amongst YA and adult readers alike.
The vast reach of fairy tales isn’t limited the written word, either. Many popular films and television shows owe large chunks of their plot to fairy tales. Pretty Woman is a clear modern Cinderella; almost every bad-guy-changed-for-love-of-the-girl flick out there has roots in Beauty and the Beast.
The Telegraph’s list of top 10 fairy tales we no longer read:
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
2. Hansel and Gretel
4. Little Red Riding Hood
5. The Gingerbread Man
6. Jack and the Beanstalk
7. Sleeping Beauty
8. Beauty and the Beast
9. Goldilocks and the Three Bears
10. The Emperor’s New Clothes
The Dark Space Inside Our Heads
Fairy tales are dark. In the Grimm’s version of Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in an eddort to fit the slipper and fool the prince. In Bluebeard, a girl finds a room full of the hacked up remains of her husbands previous wives, her sisters included. In some older versions of Sleeping Beauty, it’s not the prince’s kiss that awakes the fair maiden but rather his, er, lust.
Are all fairy tales appropriate for all children and teens? No. But nothing is appropriate for everyone–not even chocolate. Even if authors and publishing houses did give way to the pressure from some parents to sanitize reissues and retellings, it’s likely the older, darker versions of the stories would stick around. As Jack Zipes, a professor of German studies and folklorist, puts it, “There’s a very important reason why these tales stick. “It’s because they raise questions that we have not resolved.”
Raising Questions & Relatability
As most authors and dedicated readers know, all good stories raise questions–and fairy tales are up there with the best. Fairy tales present stories and situations riddled with questions for the discerning reader. Just a few–
- Why doesn’t Cinderella leave home?
- Why is the princess so drawn to the spindle? Why didn’t her parents simply warn her?
- Why does Jack believe the magic beans are magic?
- Why does Bluebeard’s wife open the door, even when she’s been told not to? And why is the story named for him and not her?
- Do only princesses have happily ever afters?
Some argue, though, that fairy tales serve an even deeper purpose, giving readers–particularly children and teens–a framework within which to understand their problems, and themselves. Fairy tales are dark, Tatar admits, but “beneath the horror was always the promise of revenge and restitution, the exquisite reassurance of a happily-ever-after.”
Zipes agrees, going so far as to read some of his own translations at elementary schools around Minneapolis. He “says he has seen young kids latch onto the classic, dark versions of the tales. Some of the most disadvantaged students, he told the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss, “really relate to us, because we’re telling tales that they experience in their homes.””
Does this mean you should rush home and read an illustrated copy of Bluebeard to your two year old? Of course not. And it’s every parent’s choice, picking books for their child. But while some fairy tales may not be appropriate at all ages, that doesn’t mean we should pick up sanitized copies to fill the gaps. Skipping over the darkness in fairy tales does readers–all readers, not just children–a disservice. We can’t skip over the darkness in real life, but we can give children and teens a way to put it in perspective, and learn about themselves in the process. As Weiss so eloquently writes,
“Fairy tale” may be our shorthand for castles and happy endings, but these classic stories have villains, too – nefarious witches, bloodthirsty wolves, stepmothers up to no good. And scholars have come to see the stories’ dark elements as the source of their power, not to mention their persistence over the centuries. Rich in allegory, endlessly adaptable, fairy tales emerged as a framework for talking about social issues. When we remove the difficult parts – and effectively do away with the stories themselves – we’re losing a surprisingly useful common language.
Last week, I posted about what makes a book unsatisfying (it’s all about a poor resolution–sorry, Eve). But pinning down what makes a book satisfying isn’t as simple as writing out a list of opposites. Sure, a book with a great wrap up might be a good read, but there’s more to a satisfying book than that.
Reading–moreover, enjoying–a book is a very subjective thing. So far this month, I’ve read just one completely satisfying book – Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief – which hit on all my favorite things. But the parts of a book I like (a lot of sensory detail, historical inclusions, world myths, dalek fight scenes, some tangents) may be quite different to the parts you like. Harder still, our patience and thresholds for enjoyment may be different. (I’m often willing to give a book at least one hundred pages before deeming it slow, but only call about 10% of what I read truly enjoyable.) Despite this, though, there are three easy ways to figure out if a book was satisfying or not:
- You think about the book for a while after you’ve finished it
- You talk about the book with friends, without using negative adjectives
- You look for a sequel/other books by the same author
Trusting the Reader
An inherent part of reading is trust. As I mentioned last week, readers trust that an author will reward their efforts, and provide a story worth reading all the way to the end. But, as my mother likes to say, trust is a two-way street.
It’s easy to pile everything on an author–after all, in Book Land, authors create, giveth, and taketh away. But a large part of writing is giving the reader credit, and assuming that he/she is neither dense nor stupid, and doesn’t require a summary or info dump every few pages. (This is especially true in YA.) But striking a balance between giving just enough information rather than too little or too much is difficult, even for the best authors (Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is a great example of getting it right).
Although it’s not the only reason a book might be satisfying, having an author’s trust is definitely an important factor in a satisfying read. Much like a keystone, authorial trust holds everything in place. Why? Because readers are people–people who want (and deserve) to be respected not just for their intellect, but for putting in the effort to read a good book. When an author takes the leap–and it is a leap, because one of the greatest parts of being an author is being able to share our stories in the way we think they should be shared–and trusts the reader, three important things happen:
- Redundancy disappears
- Backstory becomes less of a focus/chore
- The story becomes more compelling because we have to work through it
And when an author doesn’t trust the reader to pick up hints and clues? Generally speaking, the writing becomes redundant, with not-so-obvious hints repeated every few pages, and characters taking turns spewing backstory and “necessary” info. Most of the time, this turns a potentially good book into a frustrating read because:
- The characters spend too long talking, and not enough time acting
- The writing is full of telling rather than showing
- Dialogue is stilted, or filled with forced reveals and backstory
- Adjectives are over-used in an attempt to draw attention to important information (usually information that was revealed earlier)
- It takes too long to slog past the history and get to where the story starts
Sometimes, though, these aren’t satisfaction-killers–it all depends on what the reader wants from a book. Danielle Steele, Queen of Redundancy, has a large dedicated following, possibly because the amount of redundancy in her books means a reader can pick them up and put them down willy-nilly, yet still keep up with the story.
Reasons we love a book
Of course, working through a story–like having an author’s trust–is just one part (albeit a very important part like, say the Mona Lisa’s smile) of the big picture. And not every satisfying book hits every one of the reasons listed below–which is okay, because every book, every story, and every author is different.
Reasons a book may stay with you after that last page turn:
- The clues lead up to a big–not obvious–aha! moment
- Characters act like themselves all the way up to the end, even when a situation is difficult
- The story ties into our humanity, playing on emotions (romantic subplots) or sense of justice (villains get comeuppance) &c.
- Plotlines come together in an unexpected way
- Everything resolves, but without a forced ending
- The story/characters challenge the way the reader thinks
- Subplots are resolved
- The story ties into familiar settings/uses the reader’s knowledge in some way
- The story wasn’t obvious/had to be worked through for the pay off
Working through the Story
Reading is fun, but, like most things, it’s actually more fun if everything is not handed to us on a silver platter. Most readers are drawn to stories with a puzzle to solve, or a kind of mystery. This doesn’t mean that mysteries are the only good fiction (though I do love a bit of Poirot on a rainy day), because almost all stories–or rather, almost all good stories–are mysteries, regardless of their genre.
No, not all stories involve murder or theft or pet abduction. But the majority of good, worthwhile stories do involve an element of discovery, some question or event we, as the reader, is drawn to solve. Sometimes, it’s an obvious, almost physical question (Whatever Happened to Cass McBride?) layered with other questions. Sometimes it’s less concrete than that (why does Holden think everyone else is a phony?), an exploration of the whys and hows of an author’s characters/world. But working through a story is compelling because we have to use our intelligence–and often because we learn something new along the way (Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief is a great example).
What have you read lately? Was it a satisfying read? Why?