“Spring has come again already” – Lithuanian poetry through the ages

My Lithuanian Year continues as I delve into more of the Baltic nation’s literary history.  For National Poetry Month, I’ve decided to research five of Lithuania’s best-known poets, from the nineteenth century to the present.  From the age of the Tsars, through Soviet occupation, to Independence, Lithuanian poetry has evolved through a variety of literary and socio-political movements — classical, Romantic, lyric, expressionist, futurist, postmodern, religious, secular, mythological, realistic, overtly political, more subtle and Symbolic, etc.

The very first Lithuanian poem was published in 1818 — Metai (The Seasons), by Kristijonas Donelaitis (1714 – 1780), a Lutheran pastor who grew up in the Prussian territory of Lithuania Minor.  Donelaitis studied classical literature and Lutheran

Donelaitis

Source: 15min.lt

theology at the University of Königsberg.  He wrote several poems in German, as well as six Lithuanian fables, but Metai is considered his major work, written and rewritten over many years.

Metai is organized into four sections:  The Joys of Spring, The Toils of Summer, Autumn’s Riches, and The Cares of Winter.  The poem deals with daily village life and the interaction between peasants and their wealthier neighbors.  At the time that Donelaitis was writing, Lithuania was a feudal society, with serfs living under wealthy landlords.  Donelaitis speaks of the two classes as equals, both with their virtues and flaws, and he encourages his readers to live more in tune with the natural world, criticizing the fancier, “foolish” fashions of the day.

Here is an excerpt from The Toils of Summer, translated into English by Clark Mills:

So, too, with our cheerful birds — it was the same.
Calls of cuckoo, warblings of the nightingale,
What the skylarks, paired in flight, played and invented,
All are ending, or have now completely ended.
Living creatures, many, who began as nestlings,
Fathers lost, and mothers, now must feed themselves,
In their warblings echoing the parents’ voices.
So at once the world’s almost as if renewed.
I, an old man, see these marvels and exclaim,
Sighing with a woeful wonderment and sorrow:
Oh, how empty are the labors of our age!
As Saint David tells us, we are fragile beings;
Like the flowers in the fields, we grow and blossom.
Each man at his birth is like a simple bud —
First his blossom will unfold and open out,
Then, his flowering over and himself divested,

He brings forth his fruits that end his time alloted.
This, exactly this, happens to all us wretches.
We, peasant and landlord, in the cradle whining,
Show so faintly in the bud our life to come!
Later, with the time already here to blossom,
One, foppishly skipping like a gentleman,
And another, scurrying like a peasant boor,
Waste their days of youth away in foolish frolic.
Yet, already, as the beard begins to grow,
And as each must turn his hand to earnest labor,
Ah, how soon our foolish childlike fancies fade!

Source:  Lituanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Spring 1964

Next:  Maironis, poet-prophet of national rebirth

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Posted in folklore/fairy tales, LGBTQIA, Lithuania, poetry, romantic, Scholarly Musings | 4 Comments

“Stink bugs are temporary. Love is forever.”

As I mentioned the one other time I got political on this blog…I don’t usually get political on this blog.  I usually keep La La Land and Washington very separate.  But once in a while, a thing happens that deserves mention, a thing that directly relates to the values of La La Land and the messages we want to share with the world.

That thing is this book.

Marlon Bundo

Jill Twiss.  A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo.  San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2018.

Rating:  5 out of 5 tiny carrots that aren’t ready to grow up and be lunches yet.

Yes, it’s partly a political parody that explicitly mentions Vice President Mike Pence by name and says he “isn’t very fun,” but it’s also just a lovely children’s book about two bunnies who fall in love and fight prejudice to be together.

You see, as former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver explains in this segment from Last Week Tonight (warning: some very salty language), Vice President Mike Pence has not been a friend to the LGBT community.  As governor of Indiana, he signed a law making it legal for Indiana businesses to discriminate against LGBT people.  As a member of Congress, he actually opposed anti-discrimination bills.  He’s argued against LGBT people serving in the military.  His views on conversion therapy are, at best, unclear.

So, when Mr. Pence and his family wrote a book about their bunny, Marlon Bundo, in which Bundo teaches children about the awesome job the vice president is doing (and one of the stops on the Bundo book tour is at an organization that promotes conversion therapy), John Oliver and his team decided to tell their own story (just in time for Easter, too!) about bunnies doing their civic duty to promote love and equality and respect for people’s differences.  And they’re donating the proceeds to the Trevor Project and AIDS United.

Now, to be fair, I did read the original Marlon Bundo book, and it was a nice lesson on what the vice president does on a daily basis, and the watercolor illustrations were pretty.

Marlon Bundo1

But it’s not very kid-friendly.  Honestly, it does make the vice president sound Very Boring.  Sure, it tries to reel kids in with a big bunny on the cover, but Marlon Bundo barely features in the rest of the illustrations.  They focus more on the D.C. buildings and landscapes, with the titular bunny shrunken and relegated to the background.

And the story itself focuses on such dry, technical aspects of the vice president’s day.  How many little kids would really care that the vice president gets his morning coffee from the Naval Enlisted Aides, or that his second office is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (or “EEOB,” as Marlon Bundo adorably calls it), or that he has a painting by T. C. Steele?  Sure, it’s important for kids to learn about how their government works, but you have to present it in a way they’ll relate to.  And no, it’s not enough to try to dress it up in rhyming verse.  All a kid is going to see is:

Blah blah blah blah
Blah blah blah motorcade.
Blah blah blah blah
Blah blah blah Aides.

You know what kids do relate to?  Feeling different, and wanting to be treated fairly, and knowing who you really like spending time with.  And you know what little kids want to see in a book about a bunny?  BUNNIES.

Better Bundo

Adding more friendly animal characters also helps, and you get extra points for giving them funny names like Scooter (a turtle) and Pumpernickel (a badger) and Dill Prickle (a hedgehog) and Mr. Paws (a very good dog).

This is what kids are going to respond to.  These are the kinds of lessons we need to be teaching them — that our differences make us special and worthwhile, and that we don’t need to let mean stinkbugs make all the rules.

This book should definitely be added to lists of the best LGBT picture books.  Now, go and get yourself a copy of the Better Bundo Book! 😀

 

Posted in favorites, humor, LGBTQIA, news, opinion, picture books | 11 Comments

Love, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Book Nerd Problems 1

Book Rating:  4.95 out of 5 magical worlds where everything is made of Oreos.

Movie Rating:  4.5 out of 5 kisses on the Ferris Wheel

So, yeah, Simon the book is sweet and adorable and heartwarming, and the movie, though it has a few adaptation-related issues, is one I’d be willing to see again.  Maybe even buy myself a DVD copy.

Things I especially liked (in the book):

Simon

  • The bully isn’t a cliche — he’s not a jock or the Most Popular Guy In School.  He’s a goofy nerd who kind of grows on you, even though he’s being a total jerk.

 

  • You know what else has apparently grown on me?  The present-tense p.o.v. in non-
    Hunger-Games books.  Honestly, I didn’t even notice it until about a quarter of the way through the book.  The story hooked me that well.  Or maybe it only works in first-person stories, I don’t know.  I just know it was not at all the usual turn-off it is in other books.

 

  • The story has good messages, but it’s not messagey.  And it’s uplifting, but it’s not a Utopia; it still acknowledges the real problems LGBT teens have to deal with, even in more progressive places like Atlanta.

 

  • That one college guy in the bar.  He is totally the classiest.  When he finds out Simon is underage, he’s all, Oh, no, I respect you way too much to keep flirting with you. I’m just gonna take you back to your friends so they can get you home safe.  THE CLASSIEST.

 

  • Did I mention how romantic and sweet and mushy-in-a-good-way this book is?  Simon and “Blue” are the sweetest!

 

Things I especially liked (in the movie):

Love Simon

  • That scene where Simon imagines what it would be like if straight people had to come out to their parents, and their parents reacted with the same drama.  It’s freaking hilarious.

 

  • The Ferris Wheel kiss was THE LOVELIEST THING EVER.

 

  • Jennifer Garner was wonderful.  I thought they were going to typecast her as the eye-rollingly goofy/awkward mom, but she felt really natural and sincere.  Her big speech about how much she loves Simon exactly as he is made me a bit teary-eyed, tbh.

 

  • Random thing is random, but I actually clapped out loud when Simon listed David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s “Little Drummer Boy” as one of the greatest Christmas songs ever.  Fifty points to the house of your choice, Simon, for your impeccable taste.

 

  • SPOILERS AHEAD.  Skip to the next section if you haven’t read the book.

    Ok, this one was almost a huge turn-off.  They almost spoiled the Blue reveal within the first twenty minutes, but then they totally saved themselves by making it a fake-out.  As in, Simon thinks he figures out who Blue is, but then sees the guy kissing a girl, so he has to keep guessing throughout the movie, until the end, when he realizes his first guess was right after all.


Things that bugged me (in the movie):

  • They thin-washed Leah.  Not cool.

 

  • They made the Blue reveal a big public thing, when in the book, Simon made a point to ask Blue privately about meeting in person, so as not to force him to come out to everyone before he was ready.  Then again, I do get that the more dramatic reveal fits a rom-com, and it is really nice to see a gay couple get that much positive attention — even excitement — from their classmates, and ok, it did work as a nice counter-point to the Homecoming Game scene, so maybe I’ll give it a pass.

 

  • SPOILERS AHEAD…..  The cheesy vice principal was mostly added for extra comic relief, which would have been fine (I totally laughed out loud when he pulled his hat over his eyes during Martin’s disastrous Homecoming game performance), except when his jokes come off as awkwardly homophobic.  Like when he at first seems to be really concerned about Simon’s well-being after the Creeksecrets outing, only to make a point that, “Woah, just so we’re clear, when I said we had a lot in common, I didn’t mean that.” Or when he assumes that Simon and Ethan are a couple because they’re the only out gay people at school.

 

  • This is a minor thing, but why did they change Simon’s G-mail username?  Did they not get the rights to use Elliott Smith’s lyrics?  Or did they not want to bother explaining what hourtohour.notetonote means, so they went with the more generic frommywindow?

 

The only thing I’d change (in the book):

I would have made it a little more clear that, even though it’s definitely not Simon’s jam, cross-dressing is totally normal and acceptable as long as you’re doing it in a respectful way (i.e. understanding that gender is a spectrum, and there’s nothing crazy or weird about someone with traditionally masculine traits wearing traditionally feminine clothing), and nothing to get squicked out about.  I get the feeling that the book was trying to make the point that, hey, not all gay people are into things like cross-dressing, and also maybe pointing out that “gender-bending” as a Spirit Week activity tends to be done in a disrespectful way, but it just wasn’t entirely clear.

 

Anyway…

Simon the book is wonderful, and, issues aside, Love, Simon is a pretty awesome movie.  The fact that we finally have an LGBT-teen-starring romantic comedy from a major film studio is, of course, amazing, and makes me hopeful we’ll see more LGBT YA book adaptations.  Seven Tears at High Tide the Movie, plz!  Let’s add America Chavez to the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

What about you, La La Landers?  What LGBT YA’s would you like to see adapted into movies?

 

 

Posted in adaptations, favorites, humor, LGBTQIA, movies, romantic | Tagged | 4 Comments

Tales from the land of the Nemunas

Back in 2013, I wrote a post on some of my favorite Lithuanian children’s stories.  Today, in honor of the March 11, 1990 re-establishment of Lithuanian independence (Yep, Lithuania actually has two independence days! 😀 ), which re-asserted the Declaration of Independence from 1918, I’d like to share some (mostly) newer collections of folk and fairy tales I’ve gathered in recent years.

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Graziausios Vaikystes Pasakos
Ramutė Prapiestienė, ed.
The Loveliest Childhood Tales
Vilnius: Alma littera, 2013

My grandmother brought this book back from her last trip to Lithuania in 2014.  It’s a collection of not only classic Lithuanian tales, but also Grimm’s and other fairy tales translated into Lithuanian.  The best part is the artwork by Rimantas Juškaitis — bright, expressive illustrations of laughing rabbits, dancing storks, and nine-headed dragons.  My favorite illustration is of a girl and her magic cow, in the story “Karvė Verpėja” (The Thread-Spinning Cow).

IMG_E2663

It’s a Cinderella story in which a girl is mistreated by her stepmother, who gives her the impossible task of perfectly spinning flax without a spinning wheel.  A cow comes out of the field and offers to help, if the girl will just put the flax on her horns.  That evening, the cow returns with the flax all spun into thread.  Of course the stepmother finds out the girl’s secret and kills the cow, but before she does, the cow tells the girl to bury the first drop of blood in the earth where it falls, and bury the rest of the blood in the garden.  Where the first drop of blood fell, a well appears that serves only wine, and where the rest of the blood was buried, a magic apple tree grows.  Of course a prince passes by and only the orphan girl can serve him the wine and apples, and he takes her away to live happily ever after with him.

If this story sounds familiar, you might have read the Grimms’ tale “One Eye, Two Eyes, and Three Eyes,” in which only the mistreated two-eyed sister is able to pick the golden apples from a magic tree that grows from the remains of her magic goat, and is thus chosen by a passing knight for his bride.  The motif of the magic cow is also found in other stories, like the Chinese “Beauty and Pock-Face,” the Ethiopian “Magic Cow,” and the Serbian “Pepelyouga.”

Other fun stories in the collection include “The Orphan Elenytė and Joniukas the Sheep,”Kiskis
in which a girl has to save her brother from an evil witch after he drinks water from a sheep’s footprint and turns into a sheep himself; “Perkūnas and the Grand Duke’s Daughter,” in which a young woman marries the god of thunder, a story with elements of “Cupid and Psyche” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”; and “The Sky is Falling!” in which a skittish cat sends the whole forest into a panic with news that the sky is falling, when it was really a cabbage leaf that fell on its tail.

Honestly, my favorite part of that last one is the funny rhyming name each character gets — the fox is Lapė snapė, the rabbit is Kiškis tiškis, the bear is Meška pleška, the wolf is Vilke pilke…

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This next collection I found in my grandmother’s home library, an anthology of old Lithuanian folk tales called “Tales From the Land of the Nemunas” (the Nemunas is the largest river in Lithuania, originating in Belarus and flowing through Lithuania into the Baltic Sea).

Vaidotas Aukstaitis 2010 07 29
Petras Cvirka
Tales from the Land of the Nemunas
Vilnius: Vyturys, 1988

Like with the former collection, half the fun of reading these stories is seeing the wild illustrations — these ones by Algirdas Steponavičius.  These are earthy, abstract, Picasso-like drawings of wild animals and people bonded with nature:

IMG_2753

The stories are mostly animal tales, reflecting the forest-filled landscape of Lithuania, but also tales of humans and their daily antics.  They also reflect the socio-political climate of the time when the stories were created, and how the Lithuanian storytellers felt about their foreign neighbors.  In one story, a man from Žemaitija tricks a German by selling him a “magical” letter-carrying rabbit, a “doctor” fox that can make hens lay more eggs, and a “magical” hat that can get you free meals at any tavern.  Of course these “magical” items don’t work, and the Lithuanian ends up making a fool out of the German.

Other stories use anthropomorphic animals to reflect aspects of human life, like the tale of a rabbit steward who housesits at a wolf’s farm while he’s away, only to let in a wild, IMG_E2665partying fox and her family who overstay their welcome.  In another story, a rabbit invites several other animals over to celebrate the christening of his children.  The wolf tries to make off with the baby rabbits, but the other animals beat him up, and from then on, no one invites wolves into their homes.  Still another story humanizes Nature itself, depicting the Sun, Moon and Wind in an argument over which of them should be invited to sit at the place of honor at a man’s table.

These are stories of hard-working (and hard-scheming 😉 ) people who really live off the land, depending on the fields and forests and their creatures for their livelihoods.  These are stories of people who are one with the environment, seeing themselves in the animals and elements that surrounded them, seeing their fellow creatures as fellow people rather than merely tools or prey.

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Finally, I bought the following two books during my own trip to Lithuania in 2009.  One is the legend of how the capitol city of Vilnius was established:

Vilniaus Legenda
Dainius Juozėnas
The Legend of Vilnius

Vilnius: Alma littera, 2007

Hundreds of years ago, in the sacred region where the Vilnia river meets the Neris, the Grand Duke Gediminas and his hunting party followed a great bull.  It took until nightfall to take down the bull, and by then it was too late to return home, so the grand duke made camp in the region known as Šventaragio Slėnis (the Holy Horn Valley).  That night, the grand duke dreamed of a great iron wolf that stood at the top of the forested hill and howled with the voice of a hundred wolves.

The next morning, Gediminas called on the great oracle Lizdeika to interpret the dream.  Lizdeika told him the wolf represented a great tower that must be built on that hill, and the hundred-wolf howl represented a mighty city that would become the nation’s capital.

IMG_E2668

Setting is very important in this story, both physical and historical, as the main story of Grand Duke Gediminas and his prophetic dream is prefaced by a history of the landscape as it developed from the Ice Ages to the Medieval era, glaciers carving out the holy hills and valleys, the lakes and rivers.  The hill and valley at the crossroads of the Vilnia and Neris rivers became a sacred place where the ancient pagans built their shrine of standing stones to the Lithuanian gods, where great leaders were buried, where priestesses sang their ritual songs.  It was there that Gediminas’ advisor Lizdeika was found as a baby in an eagles’ nest, in the branches of a great oak tree, and grew into a wise oracle and even sorcerer who could read the land and sky, foretell the future, and interpret dreams.

This is one of my favorite interpretations of the Vilnius legend, as it stretches beyond the main story to show the physical, historical, and mythological contexts of Gediminas’ dream.

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The other book is a literally a fairy tale, the story of a beautiful green-eyed fairy who helps a young woman save her fiancé, kidnapped by an invading army.  Like The Legend of Vilnius, this one is heavy on setting, painting a vivid, sacred picture of the landscape and its importance to the people who live there.

IMG_E2686
Marija Baranauskienė
The Fairy
Vilnius: Džiugas, 1998

The Fairy takes place in the northeastern highlands region of lakes, a region of gods and fairies that, hundreds of years later, would become the first of Lithuania’s national parks.  So important were the nature gods and folk heroes to the people that they named their children after them — the heroine is named after Austėja, the bee goddess, and her lover is named Ažuolas — perhaps after the son of Eglė, Queen of Serpents, who became the first of Lithuania’s great oak trees?

Ažuolas and Austėja are their community’s power couple, as perfect as a pair of doves, and as is the custom in that region, they take a trip together to a sacred pond in the middle of a lake island where fairies cast their spells, sing their songs, and tend their babies in the magic lily cradles.  Beneath a nine-branched linden tree, Ažuolas and Austėja profess their love to one another and pray to the goddess Laima to smile down on them.IMG_E2669

But soon after their return to the mainland, before they can complete their marriage ceremony, a foreign army invades the land, kidnapping the young women, including Austėja, and taking Ažuolas prisoner when he fights to set her free.

In order to save her lover, Austėja will need to complete an impossible, forbidden task, a sin against the fairies.  It seems all hope is lost, but the fairies and the surrounding lake spirits have their own plans for how to save the land from the invading army.

This is truly a lovely ode to the Lithuanian mythology and landscape, a new fairy tale to explain the history of the region that would become Aukštaitija National Park.

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What about you, Postcardians?  What are some of your favorite legends and fairy tales from your own cultural heritage?  What do those stories say about the people and landscape that inspired them?

Today, I’ll leave you with another rendition of the Lithuanian national anthem, set against a backdrop of Lithuanian rivers, lakes, and forests:

Posted in folklore/fairy tales, Lithuania, picture books | 5 Comments

An ode to the books I Did Not Finish (Juv/YA edition)

In the past eight years, I’ve reviewed plenty of amazing books, less-than-amazing books, really-kind-of-terrible books, and just-plain-meh books.  The reading experience has been a mixed bag of awesomeness and problems, but there was always something in each book that kept me going, whether it was the likable-enough characters, the plot that hooked me, or the world-building that made me want to stay in that setting just a little while longer.

But an inevitable part of any reader’s life is the DNF pile — the books they simply Did Not Finish.  The books that were so ridiculous, or so problematic, or so put-down-able, that you simply can’t stubborn your way through them.  Normally, I don’t give those books a second thought after I’ve returned them to the library or sold them back to Half Price, but you know what?  It’s time to give a shout out to my DNF pile.

These are my Top 5 Juv/YA DNFs, in order of how far in I got before giving up.

#5

Moon Girl

Moongirl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF, by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, and Natacha Bustos.  I first met Lunella Lafayette, a.k.a. Moon Girl, in Issue 2 of America.  She was a 9-year-old genius who travelled to universities to give lectures about personal greatness and universal systems with her dinosaur sidekick.  Of course I wanted to know more about her!

Unfortunately, Vol. 1 of Lunella’s own comic series was just a mess.  The story was all over the place, Lunella’s motivations for not wanting to be an Inhuman and for suddenly changing her mind about letting the dinosaur tag along were too hazy, and the time-travelling caveman gang was beyond cliche, with their “Ooga booga” talk (oh, and apparently they’re like the Flintstones, living at the same freaking time as the dinosaurs.  Because that’s great science).

I actually almost made it to the end with this one; I got to around chapter 5 of 6 before I did a final eye-roll and gave up.

 

#4

Egg and Spoon

Egg and Spoon, by Gregory Maguire.  I feel like, in theory, this story should have hooked me much more, especially with its focus on Eastern European folklore, but also the meta comments by the narrator, and if nothing else, because of Baba Yaga.  Maguire writes a really funny, sassy, apparently-time-traveling Baba Yaga who says things like “Yummers” and “You’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid?” and calls her feline familiar Mewster, and sleeps on a pink-ruffled princess canopy bed covered in heart-shaped pillows with phrases like BE MINE, VALENTINE, and ET TU, BRUTE?  How awesome is this lady??  How could I not get through a whole book just on her merits??

But the story itself moved sooo slowly in Part One, and even after the action picked up in Part Two, it just didn’t hold my attention for long.  I really didn’t care about the Elena/Ekaterina twin switch plot, and I’d find myself constantly putting the book down and delaying picking it back up.  I did kind of want to know how everything would end, but not enough, and I certainly wasn’t willing to slog through several hundred more pages to find out.  One awesome side character just isn’t enough to carry a 500-page story when none of the other characters — not even the protagonists — make me care enough to stick with them.

 

#3

Love Stargirl

Love, Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli.  Sequels are a hit-or-miss venture to begin with, especially if the original book or movie was so awesome.  I know Stargirl could be considered a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the original book, and I feel like a bad feminist for saying this, but I actually liked that mysteriousness about her, that magical, cosmic quality.  Not that she was a total MPDG, though — she wasn’t just there for Leo’s benefit.  She was there to shake the whole of Mica Area High School to its core.  Having a boyfriend was a nice perk, but it wasn’t the main goal of her life.

Now, this DNF was a little while longer ago, so my memories of it are a little hazy, but what I do remember is Stargirl spending her days pining over Leo after moving to…was it Pennsylvania?  She was very secretive about where exactly she moved to, and only slipped up once in her narration.  And when she’s not pining over Leo or starting to fall for a different boy — a bad boy, oooh! — yeah, she still does some Stargirl-ish things, but nothing as outrageous as in the original book.  It seems MAHS rocked Stargirl to her core, too, making her a little less bold and a little more normal.  Which shouldn’t be such a bad thing at all — it should be a good thing to see the human, relatable side of an MPDG, shouldn’t it?

But Stargirl was really something special in the previous book, and I kind of didn’t want to see Spinelli “normalize” her.  I wanted her to remain a mystery after she left MAHS for the world beyond.  I made it about halfway through Love, Stargirl, before I decided I’d rather stick with my memories of the original.

 

#2

Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.  Guys, I want to like Neil Gaiman more.   I want to like everything he writes.  I loved his treatment of folklore and mythology in the Sandman comics, and his twist on Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in The Sleeper and the Spindle, and his work in the Windling/Datlow anthologies.  I know Gaiman can tell a fantastic story, and The Graveyard Book certainly doesn’t lack in unique characters or setting or events.  So, what was it that failed to really hook me?  Why couldn’t I get more than five chapters in?

Honestly, this DNF is the hardest for me to explain, because there’s nothing technically wrong with the book, nothing I can point to and say, This is a flaw.  The characters are interesting enough — I especially liked Silas, this creepy Dracula-like figure who’s, nevertheless, a really loving guardian for the protagonist — and the setting of the graveyard/nature reserve is both beautiful and spooky, so you’d think I’d enjoy spending 320 pages with them.

Maybe it was the too-episodic nature of the story.  What works in a series of comics or a collection of short stories doesn’t always work as well for me in a novel.  There is an overarching plot re: the man who killed Nobody’s family and is still looking to finish the job, but it’s constantly put on the back burner, behind the various minor adventures Bod has in the graveyard.  It just doesn’t feel like he’s in any real danger from that main antagonist, or that his smaller adventures really fit into that overarching plot.

I could be wrong, of course; if I could push myself to keep reading, I could find out that Bod’s trip to the ghouls’ city, his attempt to get a gravestone for Liza, and his learning of the Danse Macabre somehow prepare him to fight the man Jack, but I’m just not getting that sense at this point.  After five long chapters, I want to feel like a novel is building toward something really threatening or important, and I just didn’t get that sense from The Graveyard Book so far.  Again, this is all completely subjective and other fans of Gaiman could think I’m completely nuts.  I kind of think I’m nuts.  Maybe I’ll give Graveyard another chance in the future, but right now, like with Egg and Spoon, I find myself putting it down too often and not picking it back up fast enough.

 

#1

Between Shades

Between Shades of Grey, by Ruta Sepetys.  This one is really personal.  I’ve read Holocaust stories and other difficult subjects before.  I know it’s really important to learn about the grim moments in history, if we’re to prevent them from happening again.  But this book just hit too close to home.  My whole life, I’ve been hearing stories about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, and the thousands of Lithuanians shipped off in cattle cars to Sibiras — to Siberian prison camps where they would be either worked to death or freeze to death.  My great-grandparents were on the list to be shipped off because they were teachers — intellectuals — and they had to escape with my grandmother and her sister to Germany to avoid the Soviet officers coming to their home.

Reading this book, I could too easily imagine Soviet soldiers barging into my own house, holding my own parents at gunpoint, trying to separate my own little brother from us.  After less than thirty pages, I just couldn’t read any more.  Someday, I’ll try again, because it’s important to know.  But not just yet.

.  .  .  .  .

What about you, Postcardians?  What are some of your most memorable DNFs?  What does it take to really turn you off from a book?  Have you read any of the ones I mentioned above, and think I should give them another chance?

For more DNF shout outs, see my Top 6 Adult DNFs at Same Story.

Posted in comics, fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, historical, Lithuania | 2 Comments

Lithuania 100

Today is the 100th anniversary of Lithuania’s declaration of independence from Germany, Russia, and Poland. The Act of Reinstating the Independence of Lithuania was signed on February 16, 1918, announcing the establishment of an independent, democratic Lithuanian state with Vilnius as its capital. A temporary draft of the constitution was adopted on November 2nd, and Germany finally lost control of Lithuania with the end of World War I.

The actual document was recently found in Berlin, the only surviving copy of the original declaration.

In honor of this anniversary, I plan to write several Lithuania-related posts throughout the year, both here and at Same Story, highlighting the stories, music, and history of my ancestors’ homeland.

In the meantime, please enjoy this unique rendition of the Lithuanian national anthem:

 

Posted in Lithuania | 5 Comments

Screaming for Fairies: a conflicted story review

It’s been a month of raising the dead, hasn’t it?  I’ve been resurrecting my old Insatiable Booksluts posts, and now I’ve decided to delete my LiveJournal account.  Apparently, they’ve been bought by a Russian company and now require users to follow Russian internet rules, which is very bad news for LGBTQIA content and political commentary (I know, I’m pretty late to the party here; I hadn’t updated my LJ blog for a while, and today was the first time I tried to log in, and that’s when I was met by the new user agreement that kept referencing the Russian Federation).  Before I hit the delete button, though, I transferred my favorite posts to my new blog, Same Story, Different Versions, where I will be discussing adult books and other topics that don’t really fit here at Postcards.

As I was going through my LJ posts, though, I found one from 2010 that actually would fit in here, especially since it concerns a Windling/Datlow anthology (I’ve discussed other W/D fairy tale anthologies here, here, and here).

Time for a wander down memory lane!

.  .  .  .  .

Originally posted at LiveJournal on Sept 27, 2010

I’ve been really into folklore and fairy tales lately — especially new interpretations/twistings thereof — and one of the books I’m reading is The Faery Reel, an anthology edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow.  Windling and Datlow invited certain fantasy writers to submit new stories that overcome the cliche depictions of fairies (“No butterfly-winged sprites”).

faery reel

Most of the stories are awesome (especially Kelly Link’s “The Fairy Handbag,” Patricia McKillip’s “Undine,” Gregory Frost’s “Tengu Mountain,” and Bruce Glassco’s “Never, Never”).  But there’s one story I feel really ambivalent about:  Ellen Steiber’s “Screaming for Faeries.”

The first few pages were sweet:  sixteen-year-old Cherry is baby-siting her little cousin Annalise, who likes to “scream for faeries” — she and her friend scream out the window, because that will make faeries come to them.  Cherry thinks it’s just a cute game and waits for the girls to fall asleep so her boyfriend Robbie can come over

Cherry and Robbie have a really strong connection, but Cherry is afraid to “take it to the next level” with him.  He — and the rest of their school — think Cherry’s already had sex because of a rumor that Cherry decided not to deny.  So whenever she and Robbie are alone, she stalls and  makes excuses.

Cue the fix-it faeries.  Cherry is back home, sans boyfriend, and suddenly sees the boy faery in her room.  The tiny, blonde, leather-jacket-wearing faery (yes, my Jareth senses were tingling 😉 ) glares angrily and accuses her:  “Liar.”  Then, “Virgin.”  Then his wise, graceful girlfriend appears, and they all but have sex in front of Cherry, who feels really turned on, but still unsure.

The faeries leave a bowl of mushrooms in the kitchen the next day, but Cherry throws them out and that’s really bad.  The faeries trash her room because those were magic mushrooms (yeah, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all) and they were a gift that could have taught Cherry something.  Well, they can’t tell her now, can they?  Instead they fondle each other again and talk about seasons needing to change, and how no one can stop that change from coming.

Bad Cherry — bad girl for not telling Robbie she’s a virgin!  Bad girl for being nervous about sex, and not sure if she really wants to do it already!  Reminds me of the Nostalgia Chick’s “Hocus Pocus” review XD

Ok, Steiber’s story wasn’t as conspicuous as “Hocus Pocus” in its message about the eeeeevil (or at least stupidness) of virginity.  To give him a lot of credit, Robbie is a very understanding boyfriend, and lets Cherry know that he’ll  never push her into having sex if she doesn’t want to.  Amen to that.  But the faeries are not so easy-going, and their seasons-must-change message sounds more like “You should be ashamed of your nervousness about sex.  You’re sixteen already, what are you waiting for, prude?”

Honestly, when I finished reading, I felt like finding Steiber’s contact information and writing an angry e-mail.  I slept on it instead.  I don’t want to come off sounding like some extremist who objects to a story because it has a “subversive” message.  It’s not the encouraging-teens-to-have-sex part that bugs me as much as the making-girls-feel-ashamed-if-they-haven’t-done-it-and-don’t-want-to-yet part.  To me, that’s worse than what I hear about Twilight (i.e. its portrayal of a girl whose boyfriend is her identity and who practically begs him for sex).

Then there’s the writer part of me who would feel guilty telling another writer that her artwork is “wrong.”  What if my interpretation of the story’s message is just that — my interpretation?  This is what Steiber herself says about the story, in her afterword:

As for the subject of the story, faeries have long been connected with the forbidden, which may be why so many of the old stories and ballads about them contain an element of seduction.  In addition to being tricksters and babynappers, faeries are sexy.  So when I saw that Cherry was stuck, afraid of her own sexuality and yet also feeling the power and the magic of it, I thought it would be interesting to see what the faeries might tell her.

When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I love Labyrinth, don’t I?, and the implied theme there is a girl’s introduction to a world of sexual power (all packaged in a tight pair of dance magic pants).  It’s just…couldn’t Cherry have gotten a less accusatory, less shame-on-you lesson about the facts of life?  A lesson that would sound more like “It’s a beautiful choice, and nothing to be afraid of if you do it with a caring person” and less like “You have to do it sooner or later, so quit whining and give in.”

 

Posted in book blogging, fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, LGBTQIA, short stories | 4 Comments

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales

This was my final post at Insatiable Booksluts, a review of Kate Bernheimer’s How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales, and Other Stories.  Expect future reviews of Bernheimer’s work; I’ve been savoring her twisted myths in xo Orpheus for several years now, along with several other fairy tale anthologies I’ve been meaning to discuss.
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How-A-Mother-Weaned-Her-Girl-375x469Book:
 How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales, and Other Stories, by  Kate Bernheimer; Illus. Catherine Eyde

Published:  August 2014 by Coffee House Press, Minneapolis.

Recommended if you like:  offbeat, unusually structured stories; re-imagined fairy tales with a somewhat dark (but also whimsical) tone; the color pink.

First Lines:  “Girl from another planet, I’m yours. Your planet is small and difficult, but what planet isn’t?”

Rating:  4/5 sea urchins an old lady with pink hair gave your youngest daughter, for good luck.

ARC provided by Coffee House Press.

I can’t believe Kate Bernheimer wasn’t on my radar before now. She did a similar collection of tales in 2010, called Horse, Flower, Bird, and has edited the anthologies xo Orpheus and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (re: the former, Amazon says:

Icarus flies once more. Aztec jaguar gods again stalk the earth. An American soldier designs a new kind of Trojan horse—his cremains in a bullet. Here, in beguiling guise, are your favorite mythological figures alongside characters from Indian, Punjabi, Inuit, and other traditions.

Uh, yes! please!). Oh, and she also started and edits Fairy Tale Review.

Each story in this new collection is an odd blend of gloomy and whimsical. There’s the old dinosaur who wears giant panda-and-rainbow pajamas to bed – except when he’s not in the mood, like tonight, because he’s thinking about all of his dead friends and family.  There’s the librarian who literally lives in her library – in a secret room behind the circulation desk – waiting day after day for anyone to come inside (she’s even set out a flashing sign, hoping someone at least “might mistake it for a new bar”). There’s the boy hiding alone in the woods, inside a little chicken-footed cardboard house, too afraid to leave (there’s a child-stealing witch, you see), but wishing he at least had someone to talk to…

How does that Beatles song go?

LonelyPeople

Well, maybe not all the people are lonely. There are the Earth girl and the “Girl from another planet” in one of the prose-poem-like interludes that Bernheimer includes before certain stories.  And there are best friends S– and K–, in “Oh Jolly Playmate!”, whose childlike friendship made me smile.

The two girls had names for everything.  Out by the Fake Creek and the Good Stream they would clasp hands and sing children’s songs, though they were fourteen. *

S– and K– are obsessed with the color pink — actually, the whole book has a kind of pink theme. Pink toy horses, pink-streaked hair, pink wine, “rose-colored” cigars…

My favorite story was “The Girl With the Talking Shadow,” a twist on Peter Pan, about a girl with a love-hate relationship with her shadow.  It’s kind of a psychological fairy tale; there were times I wondered whether the shadow really was separate from Cathy herself, or whether she was part of Cathy’s imagination.  But then, why do other kids act so strangely around her, looking scared when she smiles at them, hating her the moment they meet her?

Other things I loved:  There were some really lovely passages, like this one from “Tale of Disappearance” —

…did I mention that it’s lonely in here?  Did I tell you this house is too heavy for words? **

Or this one, from “The Girl With the Talking Shadow” —

And her gray aspect slid toward me from the ceiling at night–a mirror of me made of shadows–even when my eyes were closed I could see her.  She had a vague edge, a definite darkness. †

I also liked finding connections between the stories, the way I did in Marshland, by Gareth Rees.  Besides the pink theme, there was a recurring rainbow set of fairy tale books (an Andrew Lang reference, perhaps?) and packets of pastel-colored cigarettes.

Things I’m more ambivalent about:  The overall bleak mood started to get to me after a while, as did the seemingly negative portrayal of LabyrinthSarah
fairy tales.  The characters who aren’t “weaned,” as the title story puts it, from their love of stories — characters who in some way resist growing up — spend their lives lonely, or end up chain-smokers, or develop mental issues.  Even as children they’re endangered by this love, like the sisters in “Babes in the Woods,” who are more easily lured into the forest through promises of adventure:

“We’re out here looking for fairy-tale monsters,” the mother said to the girls as they walked on the pine needles… ‡

But if Bernheimer means to associate fairy tales with childhood — and portray both as dangerous if you cling to them — why would the protagonist in one of the stories find the rainbow books in her library’s Adult section?  Why would Bernheimer say, in an interview, that she thinks of her story collections (she was referring specifically to Horse, Flower, Bird) “as children’s books for adults”?  She herself loves fairy tales, and the idea of getting so wrapped up in a book that you seem to live in its world —

Reading is bliss; it is disappearing, losing attachment to ego and self, to their afflictions.

Maybe I’m misinterpreting, and it’s not the fairy tales that lead her characters into trouble.  Maybe the stories are what keep them from completely falling apart, by offering a temporary escape from reality.

Another thing that bothered me at first was the structure. The text is broken up so it fills no more than 1/3 of most pages — sometimes as little as a sentence.  At first this was distracting, and I couldn’t help cringing at all the white space that to me seemed like wasted paper.

On the other hand, that staccato format does help emphasize/add tension to certain moments, and it gives each story a greater sense of  immediacy.  And here’s how Bernheimer explains her similar formatting choices in Horse, Flower, Bird:

I designed these stories to let the air into them, to make the whole experience less claustrophobic. As a writer a lot of your time is spent alone in a room (ceiling, walls, door). The white space in these stories is the airy world, coming in there.

That’s…a really neat concept, actually.  Of course, the part of me that’s still uncomfortable with the idea of so much paper being not-fully-used appreciates that Horse, Flower, Bird is available in e-book as well as print form, both at CoffeeHousePress.org and on Amazon.  Hopefully, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl will follow suit.

_____________________

*  Pg. 56

** Pg. 33

† Pg. 125

‡ Pg. 100

Posted in folklore/fairy tales | 4 Comments

Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London

Here’s another post from my time at Insatiable Booksluts.  In this one, I reviewed Marshland, a collection of trippy, meta, even mythic stories and essays about the East London wilderness, a haunting world of demons and zombies and bear men and time travelers.
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Marshland-cover-188x300Book:  Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London

Author:  Gareth E. Rees; Illustrated by Ada Jusic

Published:  2013 by Influx Press, London.

First Lines:  “My first daughter, Isis, was born in Homerton Hospital in November 2008.  My parents looked after our cocker spaniel, Hendrix, while we adjusted to our new life.”

Rating:  4/5 time-traveling riverboats that consider themselves an independent micro-nation.

Recommended if you like:  the surreal, the meta, the haunting, and the occasionally grotesque.  Exploring the unusual, less tourist-trod areas of a city.

A Kindle version of this book was provided by Influx Press.

When I read the description of Marshland on inpress.com – “a blend of local history, folklore and weird fiction, where nothing is quite as it seems” – I was like

toy-story-aliens

One download later, I stepped into a world of night-wandering bear-men, haunted Matchbox car factories, time-traveling riverboats, and midnight zombie reunions.

Marshland is an ode to the East London wilderness.  The area encompassing Hackney, Leyton, and Walthamstow marshes provides a surreal and dreamlike setting where time, as Rees puts it,* is “in a perpetual remix.”  It flows forward, pulls back, curls in on itself…  Decades are superimposed on each other like waves stretching across the sand.

This is not a safe world, nor always picturesque.  Here be demons and crocodiles, buried bombs and corpses, a gritty twist on a Brothers Grimm tale, and did I mention those zombie reunions?  “How little [do] Londoners realise that, while they were tucked up in bed, battles between phantom beasts raged beneath the pylons and poplars.” **

But beware, most of all, the Old River Lea, who remembers a time before humanity — beware the day she’s strong enough to take back what she’s lost.

I love the constant dance between reality and fantasy in these stories.  The book as a whole is a mix of genres – part memoir, part literary fiction, part meta-fiction, part magical realism…  You have essays about the rise of Olympic Park and the fall of a late 19th-century sex cult, next to stories of hapless Victorians (literally) falling through time and guilty lovers trying to hide from their (literal) demons, complemented by Ada Jusic’s black-and-white illustrations that shift from simple to surreal, from eerie to macabre.  Like time inside the marshland, the book moves in multiple directions, resisting any single label.

I also liked how the stories would link to one another, in more ways than just via shared setting.  You’ll see a character or event from one story mentioned again several stories later.  A side character whose name you don’t even remember is suddenly the lead.  It’s another way the book defies genre, being neither a conventional novel, nor just a collection of unconnected stories.

A few things that lowered my rating:

  • The occasional proofreading errors — misused or missing words, two words smushed together, etc.  And there’s an error in the map of the Leyton/Walthamstow area, in the front pages – according to Google Maps, Leyton Marsh is actually southeast of Walthamstow Marsh, not southwest.  Maybe it sounds trivial, but it’s kind of sloppy, and as I said, it’s not the only mistake the red pen missed.
  • This one’s specifically about the Kindle version.  The text in the comic-form story, “The Raving Dead,” was too small for me, and unfortunately, there’s no zoom function in a Kindle book.  You can increase font size, but of course that doesn’t apply to text that’s part of an illustration. I ended up being able to just-barely read it on my laptop with the Kindle PC app.
  • The following comment from “A Walk By the River.”  Context = the narrator is describing some of the unusual things he’s seen in the woods by the Old River Lea, things he sometimes wonders if he’s imagining.  At this moment, he’s just walked past a group of African men and women performing a ceremony.

They waited silently for me to pass, smiling.  I smiled back but couldn’t think of anything to say.  I wasn’t even sure they were there.  They were figures from the dreams of another.  I had become a bit part in the dengue-fevered fantasy of a sick city. [emphasis mine]

To me, it sounds like he’s referring to this group of people — or his vision of them — as a symptom of disease.  Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne illness usually found in tropical regions, including some parts of Africa (though it’s apparently been spreading elsewhere more recently).  It usually breaks out in dense urban areas.  One of Marshland’s themes is the constant threat of urban London spreading into the wilderness… so, is the narrator suggesting that those people he saw (or imagined) in the woods — people he speaks of as other, as foreign — are part of the problem?  It’s odd, since the book expresses a different attitude three stories later, when a character seems comforted by the sight of a football game “‘played between men of all races and creeds,’” believing it represents the freedom of humanity (well, “man”) in general. 

Overall, though… 

Marshland is an excellent read, especially if you’re into meta-fiction and magical realism (if you liked Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman, for instance), and don’t mind the occasional swear word or a few graphic sex scenes.

I also recommend Rees’ blog, The Marshman Chronicles.†  The “Marsh Radio” section is especially fun – it’s a collection of super-short stories (and a slightly longer one about that time aliens tried to transform the marshes into “a giant spacecraft landing site”) matched with playlists featuring hallucinatory streams of disco, dub, techno, electronica, remixed chants, and “Hauntology”…whatever that is.  Anyone want to tell me what that is?  Sj?  Yeah, I know I could just Wikipedia it… oh.  Except, apparently, they deleted that entry?  Because they couldn’t decide if it’s actually a thing?  But there’s an archived copy of their debate (scroll to the bottom) re: whether or not to delete said entry?  Huh.  Um…

Dance Party Ending, GO!

comunity-krumping

______________________________

*  In this quote from “Death of a Fish,” Rees is referring specifically to the Middlesex filter beds, but the comment also applies to the way he sees the marshland as a whole.

**  from “Death of a Fish,” Kindle Locations 685-686.

†  The Marshman Chronicles blog has since been taken down 😦  But ten points to Ravenclaw if you see what he did with that title†† 🙂

††  It’s totally an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, right?

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, magical realism, meta, short stories, spooky | 3 Comments

Scary ghost stories and tales of the glories: New Year’s tales and traditions

Back in 2013-2014, I was a contributor to the Insatiable Booksluts blog, which specialized in small-press literature reviews, Reading Rages™, and other fun and snark-tastic book-related business (I never did master Susie’s particularly awesome brand of snark myself).  It’s one of the most fun projects I’ve taken part in, and I’m really going to miss working with Susie, sj, and the rest of the IB team.

Unfortunately, the site has since been retired, but I’ve decided, with Susie’s permission, to resurrect some of my posts here at Postcards (the Juv/YA-appropriate ones, anyway…the more adult ones I’ll post to my LiveJournal blog to my new adult book blog, Same Story, Different Versions) starting with a look at some New Year’s folk tales and cultural traditions from around the world.

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The Fire New Year” – A poor man and woman are celebrating the New Year, making do with what very little they have, when a weary traveler knocks on their door.  He needs a place to stay for the night, and none of the other houses would accept him.  The couple agrees, and their kindness is immediately rewarded – the traveler is really the god Miruku, who’d been searching for a place to bestow his luck.

To the people of Okinawa’s Yaeyama islands, Miruku (“Miroku” in other parts of Japan) is a harvest god and bringer of good fortune.  “Miruku parades” wind through village streets during harvest festivals, led by someone dressed as the god.  And some believe that on New Year’s Eve, Miruku – in this case known as Hotei – sails with six other “Lucky Gods” to various towns “to dispense happiness to believers.”

Miroku is also a very important figure in Buddhism – he is a version of Maitreya, the Future Buddha who will save humanity from its most corrupt state.  It makes sense, then, that “The Fire New Year” also speaks of the old couple’s faith in the future – when asked whether they’d prefer wealth or youth, they choose youth, reasoning that money can corrupt one’s mind, while youth would help them work toward a better life.  In other words, they don’t ask for instant (monetary) gratification, because they trust that their future will be happy enough.

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Konig Ambanor und das Waisenmadchen,” or “King Ambanor and the Orphan Girl” – an

tawny-owl1-300x225

Wikimedia Commons
Oh, and the “fairy godmother” is an owl. Guess why I think that’s particularly neat. *cough*hint*cough*Bowie*cough*

Armenian Cinderella tale, as translated from a late 19th-century German text.  King Ambanor must find a wife if he wants to keep his throne, so he sets up a contest for New Year’s Day.  The woman “who, at a distance of one hundred paces, can knock the crown off his head with an apple,” would be his wife.  Many women try and fail at the contest, when a mysterious girl appears, veiled and covered completely with flowers.  She throws a diamond apple and successfully hits the crown, but disappears before the king can discover her identity.

According to Marian Roalfe Cox, the Cinderella in this story may symbolize the Armenian spring goddess Amanora.  Long ago, the Armenian people honored Amanora with a New Year’s festival, during which they offered her the fruits they’d grown that year.  Other sources refer to a god Amanor, or to Aramazd.

There are actually three dates associated with the Armenian New Year:

  • Amanor, March 21st, was a celebration of nature’s rebirth at the beginning of spring.  This remained the New Year’s date until the 25th century BC.
  • Navasard, August 11th, commemorates the day when the legendary hero Hayk Nahapet founded/united the Armenian nation.  Navasard was also the name for the entire first month in the Armenian calendar; it is said that Hayk Nahapet himself named that month after one of his daughters.
  • January 1st was declared the official New Year’s date by Simeon Yerevantsi, the 18th-century leader of the Armenian Church.

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Match-Girl1The Little Match-Girl – Hans Christian Andersen.  A poor girl is sent by her cruel father to sell matches on New Year’s Eve.  She lights a few to warm herself, and with each match she has a wonderful vision.  Like a number of Andersen’s other tales, this one does not end happily…or does it?  You could say Andersen gives us two endings – one comforting and one bleak, one magical and one harshly realistic.

Or you could say that the Match Girl has the happy ending, finally entering an eternally warm and loving place, while the people who passed her by get the bleak ending.  Stuck in a cold, compassionless world, they can’t even imagine a better existence – “No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.”

And that’s another interesting point – each “ending” is also a beginning.  One year ends and another begins.  The Match Girl’s old, miserable life ends and a wonderful new life begins.  There may even be hope for the passersby; the story ends with someone finally noticing (or really paying attention to) the disheveled kid who maybe tried to sell them some matches yesterday.  They’re too late to help her, of course, but maybe they’ll pay more attention to other children with too-thin clothes and bruised, bare feet.  And the more fortunate children who read or hear Andersen’s stories might grow into more concerned, compassionate adults.

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Gershon’s Monster – a very old Hassidic legend retold by Eric A. Kimmel.  Gershon

Gershons-Monster-246x300

Random note: the illustrations in here are wonderfully expressive

never apologizes for his mistakes. Instead, he sweeps them into the basement until Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when he gathers them all in a giant sack and dumps them into the sea.  A wise rabbi warns Gershon that this practice will one day harm his family, but Gershon continues to be rude, ungrateful, and dishonest.  And then the day comes when all of his inner demons rise from the sea as one giant monster, while his unsuspecting children play on the beach…

In addition to Hassidic folklore, Kimmel’s story is based on a Jewish ceremony in which people symbolically shed their sins into the sea or another body of water – but unlike Gershon’s practice, this ceremony (tashlikh) involves actual regret for those sins and desire for forgiveness.

The way I see it, the timeline surrounding the story’s climax represents the timeline of Rosh Hashanah itself.  In the Jewish calendar, New Year’s Day is followed by the Ten Days of Repentance, and then Yom Kippur – the Day of Judgment.  In the story, Gershon performs his un-genuine tashlikh on New Year’s Day.  Some time passes, during which he might avert the coming danger, if only he’d remember the rabbi’s warning and actually repent for his mistakes.  Finally, the Day of Judgment comes, when all of Gershon’s sins are presented before him (and God), and his fate is decided.

*  *  *  *  *

Nian-iPad-story

There’s also an iPad app version of the story

The Tale of Nián – a Chinese New Year’s legend.  Once a year, the monster Nián comes out of its mountain prison to eat, and the nearby villagers are forced to hide in their houses or run away.  But one year an old beggar discovers a way to keep Nián out.  The monster is attracted by some red paper on the door of one house, but just as he tries to charge at it, he’s hit by lightning.  So the old man wraps himself in red cloth and uses firecrackers to simulate more lightning, which terrifies Nián right out of the village.

In another version, the old man is a god who first keeps the monster out by riding it away from the village.  Eventually the old man wants to move on, so he gives the villagers advice on how best to scare Nián – by making loud music, throwing fireworks, decorating everything in red, and having the children wear masks and carry lanterns (Nián especially likes eating children).

The word Nián means “year” in Chinese, and “New Year” is “Guò Nián,” which means to “pass over” or “overcome” the year.  So, in a sense, the story of the monster is about chasing away the old year so you can start a new one.  Maybe the demons repelled by the New Year’s celebrations are like Gershon’s demons – all the negative experiences we need to overcome before we can start a fresh year.

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What other New Year’s stories have you heard or read?  What are your New Year’s Eve traditions?

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Posted in folklore/fairy tales, picture books | 2 Comments