Our Own Private Universe

UniverseRobin Talley. Our Own Private Universe. Ontario: HarlequinTEEN, 2017.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Prince songs that are secretly your favorite song ever

This book, you guys. This book is sexy like woah. Like, it goes into all the steamy, graphic details.    This book is not to be read without a tall glass of ice water nearby.

Aki Simon is fifteen, and has recently realized she might be bisexual, and this summer may be her first chance to test her theory. Of course, on her very first night in Mexico, where she and forty other church youth travel for a volunteer project, she meets the perfect girl. Christa is older, probably more experienced, and totally cute, and totally seems to be into Aki. Are they up for a summer fling, or could this turn into something more serious?

One of the great things about Robin Talley, as I first discovered in What We Left Behind, is how she explores the different questions readers might have about LGBT experiences. Her LGBT characters have those same questions about themselves, and that’s totally ok. Like, what exactly does it mean to be bisexual? Do you have to be equally attracted to guys and girls? If you choose to be monogamous with someone, does that suddenly make you straight or gay?

It used to be that whenever I pictured my grown-up, married life, I was always married to a faceless guy. Now, though, I usually saw myself with a faceless girl. Did that mean I was gay now? Or gayer than I used to be, at least?
Were bi people always supposed to be exactly bi? Did it have to be fifty-fifty, or could it be, say, sixty-forty? And could it be different percentages on different days? [1]

And how exactly do you have sex with another girl?

These kinds of questions make the characters very real and relatable. Some are pretty sure of who and what they are, while others are figuring it out day to day.

I also like how cool Aki’s church sounds:

Holy Life churches aren’t the kind where preachers talk constantly about how abortion is evil and how we should all vote Republican or anything, though. I mean, some people at my church probably do vote Republican, but mostly we don’t talk about that stuff. Instead, we get together for picnics and ice-cream socials, and on Sunday mornings we sing hymns and listen to sermons about whatever Jesus did that week. [2]

The one thing I wasn’t so sure I liked was the occasional inconsistency with Christa’s character – she says she wants to be really careful about who finds out about her relationship with Aki, but she’s inconsistent in how careful she is to hide that relationship. The story starts with her openly flirting with Aki, and admitting to Aki’s best friend that she likes girls. But for the rest of the story, she freaks out any time she thinks someone might have seen her and Aki together. Then again, Aki does notice this as an inconsistency, so maybe it’s just part of what makes Christa a complicated character.

Another thing that slightly threw me off was how much free time these volunteers seem to have to constantly wander around the town, considering they’re supposed to be helping build a new church and doing other projects, and they only have about a month to do it all.

Other than that, though, this is a lovely, steamy summer romance with well-developed, relatable characters. And yes, you do find out what Aki’s favorite Prince song is 🙂

 

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[1] Pg. 314

[2] Pg. 37

Posted in family, LGBTQIA, music, romantic | 5 Comments

My Lady Jane

My Lady JaneCynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. My Lady Jane. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. Kindle ed.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stacks of books brought along on the honeymoon

So, this is my first foray into alternate historic fiction, and the reviews promised it would be really funny.  And they were absolutely right.  I hadn’t known anything about the history of Lady Jane Grey and fairly little about the Tudors, but already I like this version better.  Hand, Ashton, and Meadows have decided that Lady Jane deserved better than to be beheaded after just nine days as Queen of England, and sixteenth-century England itself deserved a strong infusion of magic, just to shake things up.

In 1553, this alternate England is split between two groups – the Eðians (the fancy curved “d” is pronounced “th”) and the Verities.  The former are people with the power to transform back and forth between human and animal form.  The latter are non-magical folk who think spending half your time as an animal is a most distasteful affair and you should be burned at the stake for doing it.  Unfortunately for the Verities, who’d been enjoying most of the power for centuries, King Henry VIII turned out to be an Eðian– a lion, specifically – and decided to grant equal rights to his fellow Eðians as soon as he discovered his power.

Then he died and left his throne to his youngest son, Edward, who is now dying of a mysterious “Affliction,” and the throne seems to be up for grabs. This is where the story begins.

What I liked best:

The characters – Well-developed, memorable characters with learning curves and unique qualities that aren’t just quirks for quirks’ sake?  Check!  Jane is a serious bibliophile who will devour any subject, from architectural history to the history of beets, and has a tendency to start mentally rattling off synonyms when she’s stressed.  Gifford (but he’d really rather we call him G) is a secret poet who covers up his embarrassing hobby with tales of nighttime dalliances, and has a peculiar daytime condition that may or may not be controllable.  Edward is a reluctant king who’d really just like to spend his last days sitting with his favorite dog, eating bowlfuls of blackberries, but suddenly has to think about things like succession and Eðian rights, and whether women really are inferior to men (spoiler alert: nope!).

The humor – From dedication to acknowledgements, this book is tons of fun.  Part of the humor comes from the Princess Bride-esque style of the story, with its numerous parenthetical comments (though not quite as numerous as in The Princess Bride) and authorial interruptions.  And part of it comes from the reference jokes that are sprinkled in like Easter Eggs – horses named Westley, Monty Python-esque swordfight banter, a random Game of Thrones reference, etc.  And another part comes from the use of exaggeration, like every time the authors/narrators mention the Dudley nose:

It may help the reader to recall the long-nosed plague doctor mask that would appear in the next several decades. It is said the design of those beaked masks was actually inspired by the Dudley nose, though never within a Dudley heir’s hearing. [1]

And, on a random note, I’m by no means whatsoever an anti-Stratfordian, but I can totally forgive the authors for toying with the idea that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone other than William Shakespeare.  Because this is a comedy, and they can get away with it.

And, on another random note, who knew sixteenth-century teenagers used such delightfully modern phrases as “totally,” and “Hold your horses,” and “He’s my ex,” and “Would you like to paint my portrait, Sire? It will last longer”?

Some nitpicking:

A few things that slightly lowered my rating:

Gracie MacTavish is so not the kind of person who would follow a guy she has every reason to distrust just because he has “kind eyes” and a “nice smile.”

Also, I’m pretty sure a single dog couldn’t hold off a pack of wolves so easily.

And also, I’m pretty sure a fight with a gargantuan bear in a forest would involve more trees being knocked down and such.

Overall:

Fencing.  Fighting.  True love.  Magic.  Political intrigue.  Beasts of all natures and descriptions.  If such are the things you love in a book, go to your nearest library or bookstore and pick up My Lady Jane.  Go on.  I’ll wait for you here so we can squee about it afterwards.

P.S.  In my mental movie adaptation, I’ve cast Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) as Jane, Jack Gleeson (Joffrey) as Edward, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Gifford.

 

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[1] Loc. 707

Posted in fantasy, favorites, historical, humor, romantic | 2 Comments

Picture Book Parade: Somewhere out there (really out there)

Today’s round of picture books comes from the land of out there… a land of whimsy and silliness, where bears look to “find themselves” in enchanted forests; where goons in tombs fish in black lagoons; where gnomes compete for the best beard style; babies rule households with their little iron fists; and wild animals take in humans as their pets.

Come with me…

King Baby 1Kate Beaton.  King Baby.  New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2006.

Can we just agree that Kate Beaton is the funniest?  And that everyone has to buy this book for the next baby shower they’re invited to?  Yes?  Good!  But srsly, Kate Beaton can make any subject hilarious — history, literature, that one guy in the first five minutes of that Janet Jackson video, and now babies!  Babies really are just adorable little tyrants, aren’t they?  They may be generous with their smiles and giggles and picture poses, but they have many demands, and if you fail to fulfill their demands, they will take things into their King Baby 3own little hands.

You may have seen King Baby on Beaton’s Twitter and Tumblr in years past, but whether you have or whether you’re meeting him for the first time, you’re in for a treat!  Now he’s in color!  With arms and legs!  And developmental milestones!  All hail King Baby!

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Gnome 1

Kirsten Mayer.  Go Big or Go Gnome.  New York: Imprint, 2017.

Poor Al.  Al is a gnome, and most gnomes have beards.  Not just any beards, but “imperial” beards, and “illustrious” mustaches.  But not Al.  His face is as smooth as a baby gnome’s bottom.  And that wouldn’t be so bad, except every year there’s an awesome contest called the Beards International Gnome-athlon (B.I.G.), and Al would really love to participate.  But, well, no beard.

But then, Al’s totally thoughtful best friend Gnorm is like, “Hey Al, I know you’re all bummed ‘cuz you can’t be in the B.I.G. like me, but ZOMG you’ve got to help me with my beard!”  And Al, being the totally not bitter type, and having a penchant for the pruning shears, helps his buddy out.  Which leads Al to realize he does have an award-winning talent after all!

So, that’s all sweet and wholesome messages and all, but in all seriousness…

ZOMG LOOK AT THESE BEARDS.

Gnome 3  Gnome 2  Gnome 4

THESE ARE THE MOST AMAZING BEARDS.  AL IS THE MOST TALENTED, IS HE NOT?

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BearOren Lavie.  The Bear Who Wasn’t There and the Fabulous Forest.  Brooklyn, Ny: Akashic, 2016.

It starts with an itch.  And then the itch begins to scratch.  And then the itch becomes a bear.  Because, while “everybody knows that bears scratch when they itch … not many people know that itches scratch when they’re bears!”  And this is an optimistic bear who starts his existence with an “Absolutely yes!” and proceeds to wander through a Fabulous Forest (also pretty  new in existence — kind of like the new Fantastica in The Neverending Story…the book, not the movie), meeting surreal characters like the Penultimate Penguin and the Convenience Cow.

It is, indeed, a surreal and whimsical story — as dream-like as Alice in Wonderland — that teaches lessons such as:  “Flowers are more Beautiful than they are thirty-eight.”  And it’s all so matter-of-fact (except at the very beginning, but you can’t really fault the narrator for being surprised that the itch turns into a BEAR) as it pulls you into this dream world.

And matching the matter-of-fact tone are the earthy illustrations by Wolf Erlbruch, with their down-to-earth forest greens and tree-bark browns against a parchment-yellow background.  Everything seems so natural in this environment, even the upright-walking bear with the saucer-round eyes and goofy red smile.

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Children PetsPeter Brown.  Children Make Terrible Pets.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

Time to meet another upright-walking bear, the tutu-wearing Lucy, who I totally imagine talks like Grenda, from Gravity Falls.  Now you’ll have that voice stuck in Grendayour head, too, bwahahaha!

Anyway, Grenda Lucy is out dancing in the forest one day, when she finds THE CUTEST CRITTER EVER — a human boy!  He’s so cute and little, and he squeaks!  Lucy’s mom says children are the worst pets, but Lucy promises she’ll totally take care of Squeaker all by herself.  How much trouble can one kid be, right?

Brown got the idea for this story from his childhood, when he brought home a frog and his mother asked him, “Would you like it if a wild animal made YOU its pet?”  Well, little Peter thought that was an awesome idea!  And to make it even more awesome, he tells the story like a comic book, with all the characters talking into big color-coded speech bubbles, and the narration happening in big blue text boxes.  So, the next time your kid or your kid sibling tells you they want a pet polar bear, just distract them with this book!

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Goon 1Michael Rex.  Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

So, y’all know Goodnight Moon, a timeless part of American bedtime rituals since 1947.  Well, Michael Rex wants to turn that cozy green room upside down, switching out the sweet little bunny with a sweet monkey-like monster, trading the “three little bears sitting on chairs” with “three little mummies rubbing their tummies,” and swapping the kittens Goon 2and mittens for “two hairy claws / And a set of jaws.”  And so on with the creepy and ooky and spooky rhyming imagery.

If your children are familiar with Goodnight Moon, this is the perfect counterpoint for post-Trick-or-Treating bedtime.  If you’re not as familiar with the original, this is still an awesomely out-there Halloween season story.  Tell the martians I said hi!

 

Posted in fantasy, favorites, humor, Picture Book Parade, picture books, spooky | 2 Comments

Lots and lots of comics

HildaHow did everyone make out on Free Comic Book Day?  I was only able to visit one comics store this year, but I did discover some new titles to keep an eye on.  Particularly Hilda, from Nobrow Press, and I Hate Fairyland, from Image Comics.  The former is about “a headstrong little girl’s adventures through a Nordic mythscape,” according to NPR’s guide to this year’s FCBD.  Norse mythscape?  Trolls and changelings?  A cartooney little girl who sort of reminds me of Mabel from Gravity Falls?  Deal me in!

The latter I first learned about from sj on Insatiable Booksluts (note: super salty language), who was hooked by the presence of: faeries and
unicorns, zombies, creative swearing, and lots of blood.  Now, I’m not usually a fan of super gory-gross violence in my media.  And I’m still on the fence about whether I want to further immerse myself in the Holy Sugar That’s Violent world of I Hate Fairyland after reading Volume 1 and the FCBD one-shot.  It’s just…it’s done in such a goofy, humorous way, and that contrast between the cutesy as fluff setting and the horror movie blood-letting is really funny.  But also disturbing as hell hugs.

Fairyland
I mean, this girl.  She’s got style, amirite?  Look at that meta humor.

And you know I love creative swearing/exclamations.  In Fairyland, every time Gertrude tries to swear, it comes out as cutesy words like “huggin’ puffin'” and “muffin fluffin’.”  It’s funny!

You know what’s not so funny, though?  Watching a human woman get smashed in the face with a stool, and kicked in the boob, and also the kneecap… That’s just the first few panels in the FCBD episode, I Hate Image, in which Gertrude travels to the land of Image Comics characters.  I mean, I like trying out new genres and stuff, but…I have my limits, you know?

Colorful MonstersOn a more kid-friendly note, I also enjoyed leafing through Drawn & Quarterly’s Colorful Monsters, which features the sweet creature stylings of Moomin, Elise Gravel, Anouk Ricard, and Shigeru Mizuki.  There are kind (but also slightly ruthless) hippos and opportunistic weasel/kangaroos, grumpy tomatoes, vampire hedgehogs (well, what do you think he looks like?), lovebird worms, and a Dr. Seuss-like seal-headed creature with a super long neck, among other fun creatures.

Anyhoo, those were my FCBD finds, but now we’re going to look at some of the other comics I’ve been reading these past few weeks.

Ms. Marvel

I’ve never really followed the DC/Marvel universe, other than watching the Spiderman and X-Men movies and reading a really neat and gritty Rogue/Logan fanfic, but when I found out about two of the newest superheroes — America Chavez, the
first lesbian Latina super, and Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim-American super — my interest was piqued.  Kamala and America are heroes for the 21st century.  Kamala writes Avengers fanfic and deals with concern trolls at her high school.  America connects with her fans on social media.  But they’re also just classic kick-ass young women who don’t let the social norms of previous generations limit them.

Ms Marvel

Now, with Ms. Marvel, I felt pretty secure without any prior knowledge of the Avengers or Captain Marvel (though, I at least roughly know who Carol Danvers is from reading that X-Men fanfic I mentioned earlier).  Kamala is a totally new character, and I can follow her story pretty easily without a lot of context.  America was a little harder to settle into without knowing anything about her prior roles in The Ultimates and Young Avengers, or how this new comic matches or diverges from the style of earlier Marvel comics.  I have no idea what the Utopian Parallel is, or whether the out-of-the-blue and over-in-a-flashness of America’s breakup with Lisa is just the style of this genre.  But more about America in a bit.

As a character, I love that, in terms of her identity as Muslim, Kamala is portrayed as an individual rather than a stereotype — her experience is not the Muslim-American experience, but a Muslim-American experience.  Her parents and brother are more traditional, while Kamala wants to go to parties, hang out with boys, and work on her superhero fangirling.  Her best friend Nakia chooses to wear a head scarf in school; Kamala doesn’t.  And she isn’t a 2D rebel either.  Kamala does challenge some of the traditional tenets of her family, culture and religion, but she also wants to defend her family when her peers make negative assumptions about them.

Ms Marvel2

She’s also fiercely loyal to her hometown, Jersey City, and will do anything to protect it from the evil stylings of some guy called The Inventor (who’s totally not a bird!).  The overall story has me hooked, but I did have to put on my suspension-of-disbelief goggles for some parts — like how, even though her parents are against her hanging out with boys, they apparently totally don’t mind that her second-best friend is a guy.  Or how, even though they’re aware she’s still sneaking out at all hours after they grounded her for one such incident, they barely do a thing to stop her.

Or how, ok, they do make her talk to the local sheikh (a religious leader), but when she vaguely explains she’s been “helping people,” he doesn’t insist she tell him more about this secret “helping” she’s doing late at night, which she doesn’t want her parents to know about.  Nope, he’s totally not concerned that she might be doing something dangerous because “helping people” sounds totally legit.

Oh well, she gets to meet Wolverine and the Inhumans, and finds out some neat stuff about her origins, and I want to find out where this Inventor arc is going.

America

So, as I mentioned earlier, it would’ve been neat to read America having already met her before, and being able to compare her style in these new comics with that of her previous iterations.  On the other hand, the new comics do at least offer a little info on her backstory and the characters she interacts with, and this new story is intriguing enough that I’m sure I’ll be going back to Books, Comics & Things each month.

The basic storyline is that America is tired of the superhero business and wants to try out college for a while.  So, of course, she goes to a university for superheroes and mutants, and of course she gets sucked into a battle against cyborgs on her second day.

America2
Oh, and punches Hitler on her first day.
I’m pretty sure you can’t have a superhero comic without
someone punching Hitler at some point.

As a character, America is cocky, sarcastic, and shoot-first-ask-questions-later, but with a hidden soft side.  Pretty classic, I know.  Still, her sassy comments are funny, and how awesome is it to have a butt-kicking lesbian Latina representing the U.S. and punching racism and bigotry in the face??  I totally want to find out more about her origins, too…like, she mentions she doesn’t have any ancestors, so was she born from midichlorians or something?  Or does she just mean she was adopted, so she doesn’t know her ancestors?

I loved the other characters too, like:

  • X’Andria — leader of a sorority for “Fifth Element soldier babes”
  • Prodigy — genius who used to be a mutant and Young Avenger, who’s working on a time machine called the Wayback
  • Professor Douglas — teacher of Intergalactic Revolutionaries and You
  • Lunella — 9-year-old Inhuman and smartest person in the world, who leads lectures with her T-Rex sidekick.
  • Imani — tween from the Utopian Parallel who adorably (and then disturbingly) hero-worships America

America

Issue #3 comes out tomorrow, in which America’s going to team up with the X-Men.  You coming, mi gente?

Strong Female Protagonist

So, this is like a cross between X-Men and The Incredibles that started as a webcomic, and now has a book that gathers together issues 1-4.  Alison Green is a 20-year-old college student in New York City (of course), just trying to fit back into regular society after her stint as Mega-Girl.  But ever since she took off her domino mask on live TV, she can’t catch a break.  Her philosophy prof thinks she can’t possibly understand the human condition.  Random teenagers on the street try to dent trash can lids on her head.  She literally can’t get a tattoo.  And then there’s the still-somewhere-out-there villain known as Menace.

It’s a story about the not so glamorous side of vigilante justice, the damage caused by those downtown battles, and the public fear that surrounds people who are different.

SFP

Like Kate Beaton in her Hark! A Vagrant! collections, the creators of Strong Female Protagonist add funny commentary at the bottom of each page of the book.  Besides the awesome story and its social commentary, of course, those page-bottom comments are my favorite part.  I’m seriously hoping they come out with a Book Two so I can read more of them.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading lately.  How about you?  Any comics you think deserve ALL THE LOVE?  Leave ’em in the comments!

Posted in comics, fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, LGBTQIA, meta | Leave a comment

“Nothing about him reminded me of humanity.”

So, did everyone see Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast?  Any thoughts?  I thought it was an ok remake, though of course the 1991 film was better.  Only Angela Lansbury can sing the title song, amirite?

I did like the very Rococo style going on inside the castle, very fitting for the time period (late 18th century France) in which the original novella by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was published.

Beauty-Beast-2017-Movie-Posters

And did you notice they called Belle’s village Villeneuve? 😀

As it happens, one of the units in the Rutgers fairy tale course is about the evolution of Beauty and the Beast tales.  As with the Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard units, I read some stories beyond the syllabus, including the original version by Villeneuve and Angela Carter’s two BatB stories.

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 Note: Mature topics and SPOILERS ahead for all the stories discussed.

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 The origins of “Beauty and the Beast”

I say that Villeneuve’s is the original version of the story called “Beauty and the Beast,” but, in fact, the story (as a literary fairy tale) can be traced back to Apuleius’ 2nd-century “Cupid and Psyche.”  Villeneuve carried over many details and plot points from Apuleius’ story into her novella:

 Apuleius:  To appease the goddess Venus, who is offended by the mortal princess Psyche’s beauty, the god Apollo decrees that Psyche will marry a vicious creature. Venus is later furious with Cupid for marrying Psyche instead because they are not equals.

 Villeneuve:  A cranky fairy decrees that the princess known as Beauty will “become the bride of a monster, to expiate the folly of a mother who had the frailty to let herself be captivated by the fleeting and contemptible beauty of a mortal” – referring to the law that a Fairy can’t marry someone with less power than her own. [1]

 Apuleius:  Psyche’s preparation for her journey to the appointed wedding spot is described in funereal terms — “black torches were lighted, the pleasant songs were turned into pitiful cries, the melody of Hymen was ended with deadly howling, the maiden that should be married did wipe her eyes with her veil …” [2]

 Villeneuve:  The display of fireworks and other lights that greet Beauty when she arrives at the Beast’s palace prompts her to comment, “that the preparations for her death were more brilliant than the bridal pomp of the greatest king in the world.” [3]

 Apuleius: Every night, Psyche is visited by her mysterious husband, who she discovers is not a beast, but is really the god Cupid.

 Villeneuve: Every evening, Beauty dines with the Beast, and every night, she dreams of his true form, which is described as “beautiful as Cupid is painted.” [4]

cupid-kissing-psyche

And so on.

The better-known early version of “Beauty and the Beast” is the one written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, which greatly condenses Villeneuve’s novella – Beauty has five siblings instead of eleven; she visits her family for just over a week instead of two months; and gone are all the details of her life with her family and with the Beast, as well as all the backstories – Beaumont’s story ends very soon after the Beast’s transformation.

Beauty is not a princess in disguise in Beaumont’s tale, but simply a merchant’s daughter, so the story becomes more of a rags-to-riches type, and the Beast asks Beauty to marry him each night instead of to sleep with him, because Beaumont intended her version for a much younger audience. What remains is the main message about choosing inner qualities like kindness and virtue over physical attraction. Overall, Beaumont’s is a simpler story than Villeneuve’s.

Personally, I like Villeneuve’s better, with its fleshed-out descriptions of Beauty’s life with her adoptive family in the city and country, her time in the Beast’s palace, and the backstories of the prince/Beast, as well as of Beauty’s birth family. My favorite part was the forbidden-love story of the Fairy and the king of the Happy Isle, and how it affected the lives of Beauty and the prince/Beast. I liked the details of the Fairy order that lives in the sky and does good deeds around the world, but is supposed to stay detached from human beings, yet can’t help getting tangled up in human lives anyway.

Mixed Messages: Autonomy vs. Obedience

One notable difference between Apuleius’ story and Villeneuve’s is the level of freedom and choice that Beauty seems to have. In Apuleius’ tale, Psyche has no choice in giving herself up to her appointed husband; the gods ordered it, so she must go, whereas Villeneuve’s Beast insists that Beauty come to him of her own free will. And, whereas Cupid consummates his marriage to Psyche whether she wants to or not, the Beast (at least in the Dowson translation) asks Beauty every evening if he may sleep with her, and leaves her alone each time she rejects him.

Beauty and the Beast TalesIn her introduction to the SurLaLune collection of Beauty and the Beast tales, Heidi Anne Heiner argues that the Beast’s question “implies control and choice for Beauty over her own body and sexuality, something that was not legally hers or that of any woman who was handed over as property in marriage to a husband in centuries past.” [5]

On the other hand, just like the stories we discussed in the last post, “Beauty and the Beast” is a tale of obedience – in this case, a woman’s obedience and self-sacrifice to the husband chosen for her. According to Maria Tatar, Beauty and the Beast tales reflect the idea that “the female partner in arranged marriages of an earlier era was … expected to give up any notion of autonomy.” [6] And Beauty’s relationship with the Beast is an arranged marriage in Villeneuve’s version (arranged by the Fairies, in this case), despite the Beast’s insistence that she come to him by choice. “Marriage in general,” says Tatar, “was seen as the ‘absolute surrender’ of woman to man.” When the Beast, upon first meeting Beauty, asks what she thinks he’ll do to her once she’s alone with him, she replies, “Whatever may seem good to you … my life is at your disposal, and I am ready to submit myself blindly to whatever fate you have reserved for me.” [7]

This focus on wifely obedience is coupled with the message that when dealing with a man, a woman should act not according to her own desires, but out of a sense of gratitude. Beauty is pressured, both internally and by other characters, to “[o]bey the impulses of gratitude” (presumably when the Beast asks to sleep with/marry her). [8] She can’t even leave the palace to visit her family without being called ungrateful, especially when her visit lasts longer than expected. Basically, if a guy buys you fancy dinners and clothes and expensive entertainment, you owe him your body and your complete loyalty in return, whether you’re really into him or not :-/

Even Angela Carter, in her more modern collection of fairy tales, gives her Beauty a questionable level of sexual autonomy in “The Tiger’s Bride.” Though the narrator at first shames the tiger-man for asking to see her naked body, he only lets her go after she shows some skin – and after he forces her to look at his own naked body. True, the narrator chooses to stay with him in the end, but where else would she have gone in those times? Her father was happy without her as long as he had his riches, and would probably have gambled her away again the next time he was desperate.

Mixed Messages: You have a great personality

Then there’s the better-known theme of Beauty and the Beast stories – inner vs. outer beauty. Apuleius’ story is all about the dangers of physical beauty (for mortals, at least). Psyche’s problems start because she’s considered more beautiful than Venus, invoking the goddess’ wrath. Then she loses Cupid because she tries to see his physical appearance instead of blindly trusting that the person she sleeps with every night is not, in fact, a vicious monster (even though everyone tells her he’s a vicious monster… :-/ ). And then, circling back to the first problem, she fails the last test in her search for Cupid because she tries to use a gift of divine beauty on herself instead of giving it all to Venus.

The message, though, is not so much “focus on personality instead of appearances” as it is “know your place,” or “mortal beauty should not upstage divine beauty.” And even that’s not so clear, because, in the end, Cupid comes back to Psyche and she’s invited to live with the gods despite Venus’ jealousy. It’s certainly not a tale of choosing virtue over physical beauty, because, as Tatar notes, Psyche’s final test also involves ignoring people who ask her for help. Whereas the Beauty in later stories is encouraged to make her final choice out of pity and compassion, Psyche is encouraged to harden her heart in order to get the gift of divine beauty. [9]

It is Villeneuve and later writers who added the message about choosing inner qualities over physical beauty. In Villeneuve’s version, the characters in Beauty’s dreams constantly tell her not to trust appearances, and in Beaumont’s story, Beauty reminds herself in the end that, “it is neither wit, nor a fine person, in a husband, that makes a woman happy, but virtue, sweetness of temper, and complaisance …” [10] Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” even goes so far as to say that the Beast, a lion in this case instead of an elephant-nosed creature, is more beautiful than a human man.

BatBInterestingly, in Disney’s versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s the prince, rather than Belle, who has to learn the lesson about valuing inner qualities over outer beauty. He rejected a woman based on her appearance, so now he has to find a woman who will look past his appearance. This comes from Villeneuve’s story, in which the prince is cursed because he rejected the marriage proposal of an old Fairy – though it’s actually the prince’s mother who explicitly insulted the Fairy’s appearance.

And yet, despite all these claims that personality is more important than physical appearance, even Carter’s Beauty (in “Mr. Lyon”) still gets a human stud in the end, as an ironic reward for not choosing by physical appearance. In fact, near the end of Villeneuve’s story, Beauty is told that by choosing the Beast, she can have both the husband she feels obligated to choose and the Cupid-like man she’s been dreaming of. On the one hand, this is meant to be a huge clue-by-four to the head that the two men are the same person. On the other hand, it could have also been a nudge-nudge-wink-wink suggestion that a woman can marry one man out of duty, but have a side fling to fulfill her more physical desires.

Villeneuve certainly wasn’t averse to putting risqué elements in her story, including more liberal views on women’s sexuality – she even makes a point that, whenever Beauty dreams of the handsome lover, she is “not restrained by the rigid customs of society, and slumber [leaves] her free to act naturally” [11] – so who’s to say she wasn’t hinting that Beauty could carry on an affair in addition to marrying out of duty?

The prince certainly doesn’t have to learn to ignore people’s physical appearances in the 18th-century stories. Yes, Villeneuve’s prince was cursed for rejecting an old and unattractive Fairy, but the story implies he was justified in doing so. The Fairy is characterized as wicked for cursing the prince because, according to the Fairies’ law, she shouldn’t have pursued a human mate in the first place. Beaumont doesn’t even give the Fairy a backstory; she’s simply a “wicked fairy” who cursed the prince for no reason. In the end, he gets to be an attractive man again, and gets a young and attractive wife to boot.

It is “The Tiger’s Bride” that reverses the transformation in the end. Rather than changing the Beast into a man, Carter pulls a Shrek ending (or, rather, Shrek pulled a Carter ending) and changes Beauty into a beast. As she stands naked before the tiger, he licks her human skin away to reveal “a nascent patina of shining hairs.” [12] The message here is that it’s the human body that’s really the disguise for the more-beautiful creature underneath.

But then, the focus is still on physical beauty rather than personality, isn’t it? What kind of person is the Beast when he only frees his prisoner after she obeys his order to show her body, even partially? What kind of “marriage” can come from that sort of relationship?

Review 

 So, what is the message of “Beauty and the Beast”? Is it about choosing a marriage based on feelings and virtues rather than appearances? Or is it about choosing socially valued character traits in order to be rewarded with physical beauty? Is it about a woman who controls her own future and sexuality? Or is it about a woman who’s pressured into an arranged marriage against her own desires? Or is it, even, about Stockholm Syndrome? [13]

What do you think? Do you have a favorite version of “Beauty and the Beast”? Is it one of the older versions or a new twist?

_____________________

[1] Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Dowson Translation).” Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World. Ed. Heidi Anne Heiner. SurLaLune Press, 2013. Kindle ed. Loc. 3410.

[2] Apuleius. “Cupid and Psyche (Adlington Translation).” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 966.

[3] Villeneuve. Loc. 2088.

[4] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Planché Translation).” Loc. 4182.

[5] Heidi Anne Heiner. “Introduction: Beauties and Their Beasts.” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 727.

[6] Maria Tatar. “Beauties and Beasts: From Blind Obedience to Love at First Sight.” Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Pgs. 141-142.

[7] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Dowson Translation).” Loc. 2113.

 [8] Ibid. Loc. 2193.

[9] Tatar. Pg. 152.

[10] Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. “Beauty and the Beast.” Beauty and the Beast Tales. Loc. 5838.

[11] Villeneuve. “The Story of Beauty and the Beast (Planché Translation).” Loc. 4468.

[12] Angela Carter. “The Tiger’s Bride.” The Bloody Chamber. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Pg. 83.

[13] Lindsay Ellis, formerly The Nostalgia Chick, has an interesting video on why she thinks Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast is not a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, Scholarly Musings | Leave a comment

“Don’t you love the cold forest? Doesn’t the howl of the wolf thrill you through with fearful delight?”

I found this awesome reading list on an online syllabus for “Fairy Tales Then and Now,” a course at Rutgers.  The first two units focus on versions of Little Red Riding Hood and disobedience tales like Bluebeard, in versions from Charles Perrault to Margaret Atwood (for this post, I also read a few stories that weren’t on the syllabus).

Note:  There will be spoilers for all of the stories I discuss.  Also, these are pretty adult stories, with mature themes and all.

little-red-riding-hood
illustration by Divica Landrova

According to Robert Darnton, pre-Grimm versions of Red Riding Hood reflected the brutal reality of French peasant life, in which good people did not always get happy endings, and the wicked did not always get punished.  In some of these earlier versions of the story, whether the girl strays from the path or not, she and her grandmother still get eaten by the wolf, and no woodcutter comes to save them.  Even Perrault, in his fairy tales for the more elite members of society, retained this un-happily ever after ending.

The Grimms, on the other hand, provided two happy endings – the familiar one in which the huntsman rescues the girl and grandmother, and a second ending in which the girl outsmarts another wolf at her grandmother’s house, this time by drowning him in a trough full of water used to boil sausages.

Though Perrault is more explicit about his message, both his and the Grimms’ versions make use of the stereotypical man-eating wolf to caution young women against trusting strangers.  “I call them wolves,” says Perrault,

                                   but you will find
That some are not the savage kind,
Not howling, ravening or raging;
Their manners seem, instead, engaging,
They’re softly-spoken and discreet.
Young ladies whom they talk to on the street
They follow to their homes and through the hall,
And upstairs to their rooms, when they’re there
They’re not as friendly as they might appear:
These are the most dangerous wolves of all. (1)

little-red-riding-hood2
illustration by Gustave Dore

Then there are the twisted Red Riding Hood tales by Angela Carter, Jim C. Hines, and Tanith Lee.  These authors blend human and wolf nature together in three werewolf tales. Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” draws from Perrault’s characterization of human wolves as the most dangerous creatures, with their seductive charm that lures the young woman out of the realm of innocence, into a sexual awakening.

Is it a bet? he asked her.  Shall we make a game of it?  What will you give me if I get to your grandmother’s house before you?
What would you like? she asked disingenuously.
A kiss.
Commonplaces of a rustic seduction; she lowered her eyes and blushed. (2)

But in the end, Carter shows how the human side of the werewolf can be tamed through the same technique of seduction.  As in some of the old French versions of the tale, Red Riding Hood does a strip-tease for the wolf, only in this version, the tactic saves the girl from being eaten, because the werewolf, unlike the ordinary wolf, can think of other things besides his stomach.

In Hines’ and Lee’s stories, it is the grandmother herself who is the werewolf, rather than a helpless victim of nature, and when she passes her gift on to her grauddaughter, it is the wolf inside that will save Little Red from the human (or fey) world.  Hines’ Grandmother in “The Red Path” is a deviant from a religious order known as the Church of the Fey; she’s a human illegally using magic reserved for the fairies.  Her granddaughter, Roudette, visits with the intention of saving Grandmother from her wicked ways, but it is Grandmother who saves Roudette in the end, passing on her magic wolf skin so Roudette can save herself and the rest of her family from the Church’s wrath.

Lee’s Anna the Matriarch in “Wolfland” is an eccentric widow who lives in a chateau in the middle of a forest watched over by a wolf goddess.  By eating the goddess’ yellow flowers that contain the wolf magic, Anna gives herself the means to save herself, and her daughter, from an abusive husband.  Now it is her granddaughter Liesl’s turn to receive the gift, explicitly to save Anna from the goddess’ price at the end of her life, but also, implicitly, to protect Liesl herself from unworthy men.

Both Lee’s and Hines’ versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” show that the wolf is something not to be avoided or feared by women, but embraced.  It is humans, or faeries and their human followers, who must be feared instead.

Next:  Bluebeard tales

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1)  Charles Perrault.  “Little Red Riding-Hood.”  The Complete Fairy Tales.  New York: Oxford UP, 2009.  Pg. 103.

(2)  Angela Carter.  The Company of Wolves.  New York: Harper & Row, 1979.  Pgs. 148-49.

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

The Whale Rider

whale-riderWiti Ihimaera.  The Whale Rider.  NZ ePenguin, 2008 (orig. 1987).  Kindle ed.

Rating:  5 out of 5 spears of destiny thrown across a thousand years.

. . . . .

I listed this one in my 2013 year-end review, but never got around to reviewing it.  I just let it percolate and percolate in my head, until now, two re-reads later, I’ve finally decided it’s time.

This story has so many things I love:  magical realism, oceanic folklore, girl power, and it’s seriously setting off my Ocean Girl radar with its talk of a time when people could speak with whales!

ocean-girl-radar

The language and imagery are gorgeous, the plot is well structured, and it’s not like other Chosen One stories I’ve read (though, if I had one complaint, it would be that Kahu is a bit too perfect; she’s more a symbol than a 3-dimensional character…which, then again, isn’t such a bad thing if you look at The Whale Rider as a fairy tale).

The story

The story begins one spring, when a girl is born into the line of men descended from Kahutia te Rangi, the ancient ancestor of the Whangara Maori tribe who rode to New Zealand on the back of a whale.  The current leader of the tribe, Koro Apirana, is disgusted by this break in the male line of descent, but he is even more furious when his grandson names the girl after the Whale Rider.  As for Kahu, she falls in love with her great-grandfather at first sight, and as she grows up, she keeps trying to gain his love, and he keeps pushing her away.

Meanwhile, not having a great-grandson to whom he can pass on his knowledge, Koro keeps looking among the other boys of the tribe for the one who will lead the tribe in the future, all the while missing the signs pointing to Kahu as that person.  But one night, when Kahu is eight, a disaster happens that gives her the opportunity to finally get Koro’s attention.

Not another Chosen One story (or is it?)

Well, on the one hand, this is the Chosen One-iest story I’ve ever read.  Kahu has ALL THE SIGNS pointing to her as The One meant to lead the tribe and save their connection to the sea.  Her parents controversially name her after the famous Whale Rider who founded the tribe.  As a baby, Kahu only likes Maori food.  She’s obsessed with Koro Apirana – who himself is known as “Super Maori” among the younger generation – no matter how much he pushes her away.  She sneaks into Koro’s cultural lessons all the time.  She’s the only one who cries while listening to stories about whale hunting.  She makes whale sounds while staring off into the sea, and the whales seem to listen to her.  She’s at the top of her class and leader of the culture group at school.  And on.  And on.  And on.

Koro must be seriously stubborn in his misogyny to not see all these giant neon signs pointing to the future leader he’s been looking for.

But it’s not the kind of Chosen One story I’ve gotten used to.  Two cases in point:

  • It’s not one of those stories in which the Chosen One is an outsider who sweeps in to save and/or revolutionize an indigenous community (looking at you, Avatar and The Road to El Dorado).

Kahu is part of the community, and though she does challenge the traditional attitude toward females, she’s not the first to do so.  Her great-grandmother, Nanny Flowers, is a descendant of Muriwai, a woman who took charge in a dangerous situation while the male leaders were away and saved her people from being drowned at sea.  Nanny Flowers calls her “the greatest chief of [her] tribe.”

There was also Mihi Kotukutuku, Nanny Flowers’ aunt, who once stood on sacred ground – something women were not supposed to do – and challenged the chief when he yelled for her to sit down.

‘No you sit down! I am a senior line to yours!’ Not only that, but Mihi had then turned her back to him, bent over, lifted up her petticoats and said, ‘Anyway, here is the place where you come from!’ In this way Mihi had emphasized that all men are born of women.  (pg. 81)

Kahu follows in Mihi and Muriwai’s footsteps by sneaking into the young men’s cultural lessons, and just showing all those signs that she, and not one of the young men, is meant to be the one to whom Koro passes the mantle.

  • The story is told from the p.o.v. of a member of the community, rather than focusing entirely on Kahu.

This isn’t just Kahu’s story.  It’s the Whangara community’s story.  In particular, it’s told from the point of view of her uncle Rawiri, who’s sixteen when Kahu is born.  Throughout the story, Rawiri does focus on his experiences with Kahu, but there’s also an interlude in which he describes his four years abroad in Australia and Papua New Guinea, and how they shaped him as a Maori.  The story is as much about his understanding of himself and his community’s destiny as it is about watching the Chosen One fulfill that destiny.

On a side note, some of my favorite parts of Rawiri’s narration were his descriptions of Nanny Flowers and her fights with Koro.

‘He isn’t any chief. I’m his chief,’ she emphasized to me and, then, over her shoulder to Koro Apirana, ‘and don’t you forget it either.’ Squelch, went her fingers as she dug them into the dough.
‘Te mea te mea,’ Koro Apirana said. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’
‘Don’t you mock me,’ Nanny Flowers responded. Ouch, went the bread as she flattened it with her arms. She looked at me grimly and said, ‘He knows I’m right. He knows I’m a descendant of old Muriwai, and she was the greatest chief of my tribe. Yeah,’ and Help, said the dough as she pummelled it and prodded it and stretched it and strangled it…

No sooner was I out the door when the battle began. You coward, said the dough as I ducked.  (pgs. 16-17)

Fairy tale and magical realism

The Whale Rider feels like a new legend, a continuation of the original legend of Kahutia te Rangi.  At several points in the story, the narrator repeats the ritual line:

Hui e, haumi e, taiki e.
Let it be done.

This serves to emphasize that the events in Kahu’s life are part of the tribe’s destiny, that they are meant to be.

As a character, Kahu at times seems more like a symbol than a dynamic person, with just how good and kind and dutiful she is – just like the female protagonists in some fairy tales.  She’s devoted to the leader of her tribe, and doesn’t let his rejections discourage her.  She’s a model Maori child, only drinking water and eating Maori food, rather than junk food and soda like other children.  All this serves to mark her not only as the Chosen One, but as a mythical figure in her tribe’s history.

Also enhancing the story’s mythic quality are the elements of magical realism.  According to Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, magical realism serves as a form of “political and cultural disruption: magic is often given as a cultural corrective…”  In The Whale Rider, magical realism signals a turning point in the tribe’s history, a time of great change to the status quo.

It starts with the founding of the tribe by Kahutia te Rangi, who made his entrance in the most unusual way – on the back of a whale.  He was so in sync with the whale that he taught him to contract his muscles to make handholds, stirrups and a saddle, as well as a breathing hole for when they dove deep.  And as he approaches the new land, Kahutia threw small spears; some became birds and sea creatures, but the last one was meant to land a thousand years later, when the tribe needed it most.

At several points in the present day story, Rawiri thinks he sees a spear flying through the air and landing nearby.  This signals the coming of another great change, this one to the status quo as Koro Apirana sees it.

Conclusion

The Whale Rider is a tribute to Maori mythology and traditions, and a celebration of powerful women like Muriwai, Nanny Flowers, and Kahu herself.  It’s a beautiful work of magical realism, full of poetic language and imagery, and a unique Chosen One story.

The movie is also pretty neat, but the book goes into much more depth about Maori history and beliefs, and how Kahu fits into it all.

Posted in fantasy, favorites, folklore/fairy tales, magical realism, Ocean Girl radar | 1 Comment

2016 year-end review

It’s that time again!  Peppermint mochas and gingerbread lattes, last-minute shopping and family reunions, and lists of this year’s highlights.

As a general reading trend this year, I’ve been reading a lot more LGBTQIA literature, and I think it’s an awesome sign that more and more of these stories are being published now.  If you’re interested in adding to your own TBR pile, I highly recommend following the GayYA blog.

Without further ado, the following are my favorite reads of 2016.  As in my 2015 review, I’ve also added a section for some of my favorite short stories of the year.

Reviewed here @ Postcards:

George  What We Left Behind  Symptoms of Being Human  Rumplestiltskin Problem
Neptune Rising  Seven Tears at high tide  lumberjanes_cover  vassa

More favorites:

when-the-moonAnna-Marie McLemore.  When the Moon Was Ours.  New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2016.

A lovely work of magical realism set in a small town where the river turns girls into water, lovesickness is a creature that can be pulled from the body, and roses grow out of your best friend’s wrist.

It’s a story about family secrets and personal truths, fighting blackmail and standing up for the people you care about.

It’s full of beautiful, dreamy language, and I love that the chapters are named after the moon’s seas, lakes, and bays (because Sam paints and hangs realistic moon lanterns all over town).  If you like magical realism and LGBTQIA stories, I highly recommend this book.

being-jazzJazz Jennings.  Being Jazz.  New York: Crown, 2016.

I remember watching the Barbara Walters special that introduced Jazz and her family back in 2007, when she was six.  Assigned male at birth, Jazz knew from a very young age that she was a girl.  Her parents allowed her to start presenting as female in public on her fifth birthday, and since then have been super supportive through all the difficulties Jazz faced – fighting for permission to use the girls’ bathroom in school and to play on a girls’ soccer team, and dealing with ignorant classmates and adults.

In addition to fighting for her rights and promoting trans awareness, Jazz has tried to live an ordinary life, making friends, getting top grades in school, and figuring out what she wants to do after high school.  In her spare time, she’s even started a business making and selling swimmable mermaid tails.  How cool is that??

Jazz has a very funny, engaging voice and a very confident attitude toward life.  This is definitely a valuable book for anyone who wants to learn more about transgender experiences.

dreaming-in-indian  urban-tribes

Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, eds.  Dreaming in Indian.  Toronto: Annick Press, 2014.

Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, eds.  Urban Tribes.  Toronto: Annick Press, 2015.

“There is no one Indigenous perspective … no one Indigenous story.  We are tremendously diverse peoples with tremendously diverse life experiences.  We are not frozen in the past, nor are we automatically just like everybody else.  That is why it is so important for everyone to share their own story.  In revealing their personal truths, they help us all gain a better appreciation for the messy, awesome, fun reality of the world we live in.”
– Wab Kinew (Anishinaabe), Dreaming in Indian pg. 11.

These are two collections of stories, poetry and art by, and interviews of Indigenous youth across Canada and the U.S., reflecting on their experiences with racism and stereotypes, and showing how they blend their cultural traditions with 21st century Western life and pop culture.  Like Christian Allaire, whose love of “spray-painted Dries Van Noten pants” and punk band tees, spiked bracelets and “weird formal suit vests” led him to become a freelance fashion journalist in Toronto.  But his connection to his Indigenous cultures made him aware of the problem of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, something he has made it his mission to fight against.

Or like Cree/Dene musician iskwé, who uses her music to raise awareness of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.  Or Arigon Starr, who created the Super Indian comics – about a 13-year-old boy who gets super powers from eating chemically enhanced processed cheese – as an alternative to the way Native Americans have been portrayed by non-native artists in comics like X-Men, Daredevil and Turok.

The articles are complemented by vibrant artwork and photographs that make these a really neat read.

people-of-the-sea  tales-of-the-seal-people

David Thomson.  The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend.  Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000.

Duncan Williamson.  Tales of the Seal People: Scottish Folk Tales.  New York: Interlink, 2005.

Since they were young, Thomson and Williamson have traveled in search of seal stories, Williamson while working for crofters and fishermen on the west coast of Scotland, and Thomson while traveling through Ireland and the Scottish islands.  Many of these stories were considered family history, passed down by grandparents and great grandparents, or something that happened to the teller or to a friend or neighbor.

…even at the age of thirteen, I knew that these crofters and fishermen in their sixties, and older, were giving me something private and something special.  Stories from tradition are magic – because they are given to you as a present – you are let into the personal lives of your friends. (Williamson, pg. 3)

Thomson’s book reads like a travelogue with the stories and anecdotes woven in, while Williamson’s is a more typical collection of stories with introductory notes on the people who told them to him.  Some of my favorites were the story of Brita and the Seal-man, the story of the Clan MacCodrum, “The Lighthouse Keeper,” and “The Wounded Seal.”  I also really liked the section on selkie songs at the end of Thomson’s book, where he discusses the history and variations of songs like “The Grey Selchie of Sule Skerrie.”

These are two must-haves for anyone who loves selkie stories.

Short stories:

  • “Granny Rumple,” by Jane Yolen (from Black Thorn, White Rose, ed. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling).  In the town of Ykaterinislav, Ukraine, a moneylender named Shmuel tries to help an unfortunate neighbor whose boasting father risks the wrath of the mayor over stories of flax spun into gold-trimmed clothing. But, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished… Like Robin McKinley’s “Marsh-Magic,” this is a very clever re-invention of “Rumplestiltskin,” and I like how Yolen sets it up as a legend from her own family.
  • “Rapunzel,” by Anne Bishop (from Black Swan, White Raven, ed. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling). Told from three perspectives – the mother, the witch, and Rapunzel herself – it starts out as the familiar story of desperate lettuce cravings and secret princely visits, but then veers off in a lovely new direction of female empowerment.
  • “Straw Into Gold,” “The Domovoi,” and “As Good as Gold” (from The Rumplestiltskin Problem, by Vivian Vande Velde), three stories that twist the Rumpelstiltskin story to answer questions like why the miller would make such a weird boast to the king, or why Rumpelstiltskin would sing such a convenient song about his name.  “Straw Into Gold” is about a kind elf who falls in love with the miller’s daughter, “The Domovoi” is a protective household being from Slavic folklore, and “As Good as Gold” is about a kind king who isn’t in the habit of threatening to decapitate girls or burn them at the stake.
  • Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Delicate Architecture” and Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Rags and Riches” (from Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales, ed. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling).  Troll’s Eye View is a collection of stories that offers a more sympathetic view of fairy tale villains like the Molly Whuppie’s giants or Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel.  “A Delicate Architecture” is about an Austrian confectioner’s daughter who was raised to be obsessed with all things sugary, until she becomes a master at creating anything – even a house – out of sweets.  “Rags and Riches” fleshes out the role of the servant who forces the princess to work as a goose girl.  Both stories offer a new perspective into why these women did such wicked things in their respective fairy tales.
  • “The Twelfth Girl,” by Malinda Lo (from Grim, ed. Christine Johnson).  A modern retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”  As soon as she transfers to the Virginia Sloane School for Girls, Liv is drawn to the mysterious Harley and her friends.  They seem to get away with anything, even sneaking off campus every night to party.  And then, unbelievably, Liv is invited to join the club.  At first she’s excited, but soon she realizes the mythical world they enter has a terrible price.
  • “Service Call,” by Philip K. Dick (from The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories).

Since I’ve been following blogs like Insatiable Booksluts and booksnobbery, I’ve been hearing on and off how much sj loves Philip K. Dick, and after a while I decided I wanted in.  At least to dabble.  So I followed her handy flowchart and checked my local library for the collection containing “The Minority Report.”  While not all the stories clicked with me, “Service Call” was delightfully dystopian.  A man receives a visitor from the future (who doesn’t realize he’s gone back in time), a repairman answering what he thinks is a fix-it request for something called a swibble.  As they converse, the man is horrified to find out what a swibble is, and what it means for the world of the future.

. . . . .

So!  What were your favorite reads of 2016?  What are you looking forward to in 2017?  Have a safe and happy holiday season, and I’ll see you next year!

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Source

 

Posted in family, fantasy, favorites, folklore/fairy tales, humor, LGBTQIA, magical realism, romantic, selkies, year-end review | Leave a comment

“A living flood of night”

vassaSarah Porter.  Vassa in the Night.  New York: Tor Books, 2016.

Rating:  4 out of 5 lilac-nailed disembodied hands who would love to chop your head off.

This was a good choice for Halloween, what with much of the story taking place at night and the constant danger of decapitation by a maniacal witch and her pet disembodied hands.  And of course I was going to read anything new by Sarah Porter, who previously ruined me for other mermaid tales with her Lost Voices trilogy.

The story takes place in a Brooklyn where witches own dancing convenience stores and lizard men practice law, where human men can pay to transform themselves into dogs via magical skins, and where the nights last much longer than they should.  Vassa Lisa Lowenstein lives with her step-family in a washed-out neighborhood terrorized by the local convenience store whose proprietor says she only beheads shoplifters.  Except some are beginning to suspect she targets innocent people too.

As the Lost Voices trilogy was a modern twist on mermaid lore, Vassa is a modern twist on Russian Baba Yaga tales.  It’s particularly tied to the story “Vasilissa the Beautiful,” in which a girl is sent to the house of a witch to ask for fire, and must perform several impossible tasks before she can leave alive.

The most important element from the original Russian tale, which carries over into Vassa, is the magic doll given to the protagonist by her dying mother.  In Porter’s version, she’s a wise-cracking wooden humanoid named Erg, who is truly one of the most memorable characters in the story.

“They ran off with their feeble delusions, more like,” Erg chirps.  “With a big pile of coupons for stupid, they ran off. I hope they try to buy a shiny new car with that! And designer snailskin handbags! And a diamond-crusted pony!”

Other things I liked:

  • The five Interludes that interrupt the main plot to offer backstory for several of the side characters like Vassa’s father and the BY’s parking lot swans.
  • Vassa has some of the same beautiful language and imagery as Lost Voices did, with moments like this:

…my territory is an island of blood and snow shimmered by the sunset-colored light misting out of BY’s.  My country is the stump where I unwrap the candy bar for Erg and set it on my thigh.  She eats in a living, shifting cathedral of arched white necks.
Maybe it’s small, my territory, but inside it I can still love what’s in front of me with all the heart I have left.

  • As the movie Ever After did with one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, Vassa deviates from the original story by making one of Vassa’s step-sisters kinder and more sympathetic.  Chelsea cares for Vassa and at one point even tries to save her from BY’s.

What I didn’t like:

  • The problem with Chelsea is that she gives up too easily, and it feels more like sloppy writing than an actual character flaw.  She barely tries to stop Vassa from going to BY’s in the first place, and when she does try to get her out, she gives up too easily.  We’re told she’s probably a little scared to approach BY’s, but it still seems out of character for her to give up on Vassa so quickly.
  • Vassa is supposed to keep Erg a secret from everyone, and this is especially important at BY’s, but there’s a moment when the two of them are talking out in the open, in easy view of Babs’ pet hands, and yet somehow neither of the hands notices Erg.

Overall:

It wasn’t as amazing as Lost Voices, but it’s a good addition to the list of fairy tale retellings, and like I said, it was a fun read for Halloween.  Have you read anything particularly Halloween-flavored this month?

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Selkie Girl

2752371Laurie Brooks.  Selkie Girl.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Rating:  3 out of 5 Chosen One stories

Of course I thought this would be right up my alley.  I first encountered this story as a one-act play years ago, and it was cool seeing it fleshed out into novel form.  The story is about Ellen/Elin Jean, the thirteen/sixteen-year-old daughter of a selkie and a human crofter who lives in the Orkney Islands (in the novel it’s narrowed down to Shapinsay Island), who doesn’t know why she was born with webbed hands that the other island youth make fun of constantly.  In the book, her father is much crueler and angrier about this condition, and barely lets Elin Jean leave the house, whereas in the play he’s the one who wants her to dance at the Midsummer festival with him in front of their whole town.  But that night she finds something that changes everything, and takes off on a journey to discover her heritage and her destiny (the novel turns this into a Chosen One story, similar to Isabel of the Whales).

Things I liked:

  • The details of Elin Jean’s life on Shapinsay, like the rock she calls Odin’s Throne, where she sits and watches the sea; the way she says “Giddy God!” and prays to St. Magnus; and the way her mother calls her “Peedie Buddo.”
  • The selkies’ folktale about Britta and Dane, which explains the origin of selkies.
  • The way the story explains the origin of the legendary Clan McCodrun.

 

Things I didn’t:

This section contains SPOILERS.  The non-spoilery gist is that there’s an unnecessary scene and several major character inconsistencies in the second half of the book.

 

  • The short appearance of the sea trows, small goblin-like creatures that almost eat Elin Jean soon after she turns into a seal.  This scene felt unnecessary.  The story didn’t need the introduction of another magical species.  They’re not like the Tylwyth Teg in Home From the Sea, who are part of the larger community of magical beings in the UK, and who contribute to important moments in the story; the sea trows just pop in for that one scene and are never mentioned again.
  • The scene in which Elin Jean (I’m going to call her EJ from now on) meets Tam again, months after having ditched him for the sea, is important because it’s the moment she learns about her father’s vengeance on the seals via more frequent culls, which leads EJ to realize what her Chosen One destiny is.

That’s all well and good.  The problem is, this scene comes after EJ’s disastrous escapade with a popular clique of young selkies.  Her protector Arnfin is furious that he failed to keep tabs on her, so you’d think he’d be way more careful of protecting the Chosen One after that – especially from humans, whom he’s explicitly warned her to stay away from and who were the source of the major danger during her escapade.  Yet he hangs back and allows EJ to get up close to a human she explicitly admits she isn’t sure of re: his attitude toward seals.  This should’ve raised a big red flag for Arnfin, but it doesn’t.

  • After EJ and her mother disappear into the sea, EJ’s father loses it.  He’s especially devastated to lose EJ, which leads him to take revenge on the seals for calling her away.  And yet, when EJ comes back to him, he doesn’t try to hold onto her like he did before she disappeared; as I said, he used to barely let her out of the house, let alone to the beach, but now he doesn’t care if she goes for long walks by the sea.  He also doesn’t care if she hangs out with Tam every day, despite having bad-mouthed him before as an unsuitable match.  It turns out he doesn’t care about having her back after all, and instead keeps moaning for her to call her mother back to him.
  • But then, when he does see his wife again on the next Midsummer’s Eve, and she leaves her sealskin lying in a pile on the sand, where he can easily steal it again (seriously, Margaret? Seriously?), he doesn’t bother, for some reason.  It seems, like with EJ, he doesn’t really care about getting his wife back after all.

 

This was an ok story.  I liked its portrayal of selkie culture, and the way it explains the origin of selkies, but the issues in the second half of the book really threw off my groove.

 

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