Monday, February 28, 2011

Mythology Mondays

Introducing Mythology Mondays.  The frequency of Mythology Mondays has yet to be determined.  Perhaps weekly, but I'm anticipating something more on the order of alternate Mondays or even only once a month.

I wasn't quite sure where to start with Mythology Mondays (do I start from Zeus and work down or pick random stories?).  When I discovered last week that there was a connection between Beauty and the Beast (which was the story featured on Fairy Tale Fridays) and the story of Cupid and Psyche, I decided that was the perfect place to kick off my study of mythology and to end up the month of love. The story of Cupid and Psyche was originally found in the 2nd century tale Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass) by Apuleius.  He used their story as part of his larger tale but it is believed that the story was around before this. 

There once was a king who had three daughters but the most beautiful was Psyche.  She was so beautiful that people began worshiping her beauty instead of that of Venus, the goddess of love.  This made Venus so jealous that she sent her son, Cupid (he of the arrows that make people fall in love), to earth to shoot Psyche with an arrow that would make her fall in love with a monster.  But when Cupid laid eyes on Psyche, he found himself smitten. When he accidentally woke Psyche up, it caused him to prick himself with his arrow and fall deeply in love with her.

When Cupid told Venus what had happened, she immediately put a curse on Psyche so that no man would marry her.  Her parents, distraught by this turn of events, consulted an oracle who told them to put her on a mountain top.  Once there, though, a west wind whisked her away to a palace where she was waited on by invisible servants. Her husband (who I must say appears out of nowhere; I guess if you showed up in his palace that made you his wife?) told her he would only visit her by night and she must never try to find out who he was until he was ready.

Although Psyche was very happy, she became homesick and talked her husband into letting her sisters visit.  When they saw how she was living, it was their turn to be jealous.  They convinced Psyche that her husband was a monster who would try to kill her while she slept.  They convinced her that she must kill him first.  So one night she hid a knife and an oil lamp when she went to bed.  Once her husband was asleep, she lit the lamp but when she saw her husband was Cupid she was so surprised that she dripped some hot wax on him.  He awoke and was so angry to find that she had disobeyed him that he left immediately and the palace disappeared. 

Psyche searches for him every where and eventually goes to Venus to implore her to help.  Venus, clever goddess that she is, says that she'll help if only Psyche will complete one impossible task after another.  With the help of ants, an mysterious voice and an eagle.  Finally Venus tells Psyche that she must go to the Underworld and bring Venus back some beauty in a box.  Once again, Psyche is helped in her task and returns safely.

But Psyche could not leave well enough alone and opened that box, only to find that it didn't contain any beauty but instead a deep sleep. Cupid, who could no longer live without her, found Psyche and put the sleep back in the box.  Then he went to Jupiter (the big guy, The God) seeking his help.  Cupid agreed to stop his mischievous ways and Jupiter agreed that Cupid and Psyche should be wed.  And they all lived happily ever after.  Except, you've got to imagine that Venus was still just a little miffed about the whole thing.

And what have we learned from the tale of Cupid and Psyche? "Curiosity killed the cat" comes to mind. What a little lesson about vanity? Or, have we instead learned that from the beginning of time, men were most interested in the outside package?  Oh, you men are all so shallow!

The story of Cupid and Psyche is both a part of mythology and a fairy tale so I've paired the actual tale with
Francesca Lia Block's short story Psyche's Dark Night, found in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. 

Block adapts the story of Cupid and Psyche to modern times.  The pair meet online, Psyche sees a therapist, Cupid goes to AA.  In Block's version, the two actually never do see each other in the daylight until well into the story when Psyche does exactly what Psyche does in the original tale and lets her curiosity get the better of her.  An argument ensues, an argument that most adults readers will recognize as having had themselves, and the two part ways.  But they never stop thinking about each other.  Psyche feels that she is in darkness but eventually, through therapy and diligence, begins to find a version of herself that is much more whole.  Cupid also searches deep within himself.  Over time the two begin exchanging brief emails and finally meet, during the day.  Things go well, very well, and both Cupid and Psyche finally act like the grownups they are.  I thoroughly enjoyed Block's take on the story in which she incorporated so much of the original story while making it her own.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Salon - February 27

Getting geared up this week for Miss H's 16th birthday--I cannot believe my baby could be that old!  We're building a computer for her so she will have her own and I will finally get my computer back.  Does that make it more a gift for her or for me?!

Lots of fun bookish things to share with you this week. First things first: for all of you Austen lovers, Jane from Reading, Writing, Working and Playing has an entry in a competition for Austen related stories.  Jane knows what she's doing when it comes to this kind of story--she's the author of Intimations of Austen: Stories Inspired by the Works of Jane Austen.  Jane's entry delves into the character of Lucy Steele from Sense & Sensibility (#23 in the competition).  Please take a minute and vote for Jane!

From Kitty at Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books, comes this YouTube video about organizing your bookshelves.

Something in this post for environmentalists, artists and book lovers alike--art using old books.  I never cease to be amazed by the creativity of people.  I'd love to have a couple of these pieces in my home!

How's this for the perfect desk for a book blogger?  We could build them with those ARCs that we can't get rid of any other way.

For those of you who also love movies, here's a post from The Huffington Post about movies from previous years that have been made into movies.  What's you favorite book-to-movie?  Least favorite?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - Beauty and the Beast

For the final Friday of the month of love, it seems only fitting to showcase "Beauty and the Beast."  Of all of the fairy tales I've read (so far anyway), this one exemplifies love developing in a way that is most believable.  That is, if you find it more believable that two people might learn to love each other over time, even despite appearances, rather than love at first sight as is so common.

One source states that the story was first collected in 1550 and that Charles Perrault popularized the tale in 1697.  But versions of this same story seem to go back as far as the second century and Apuleius' The Golden Ass and the story of Cupid and Psyche.
The version of the tale as we have come to know it was first published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve with an adaptation in 1756 that even more closely resembles the story that I read this week (although it is to her that the book gave credit for the tale) and which dropped the back stories of Beauty and Beast that de Villeneuve had incorporated.

Beauty is one of 12 children of a once wealthy merchant who has fallen on hard times.  His sons now have to farm and the daughters work hard in the house; the sons don't so much mind it but the daughters, with the exception of Beauty, are very saddened by their hardship.  After a couple of years, the merchant hears that one of his ships has finally come into port and he hurries off to take care of business with a long list of things his daughters want him to get them.  Beauty asks only for a rose.  Unfortunately when the merchant arrives in town, his former partners have already split up the profits from the ship. 

Despondent, the merchant sets off, six months later, on his return journey.  As the weather was so bad, his journey was taking an exceedingly long time and when he came upon an avenue leading to a castle, he decides to seek shelter.  He finds the castle welcoming although no one seems to be around until he plucks a rose for Beauty and is suddenly confronted by a beast.  The Beast agrees to let the merchant go after he learns what has happened to the merchant on the condition that in one month the either the merchant will return to stay or one of his daughters will.  The man agrees and the Beast sets him on his way with trunks full of treasure. 

When Beauty learns that the reason her father was found out by the Beast is because of the rose, she volunteers to take her father's place and eventually the two of them return to the castle.  Once again, when the merchant leaves he is sent off with trunks full of gifts.  Over time Beauty grows to understand Beast and to feel for him.  Every night at dinner he asks if she will marry him and every night she declines.  After some time, the Beast allows Beauty to return to see her family for two months.  While with her family, Beauty dreams every night of a handsome prince but she's also warned in her dreams that if she doesn't return, the beast will die.  When it comes to her in a dream that he is, in fact, dying, she rushes away from her family to return to Beast.  When she discovers him, she finally realizes she loves him.  That night when he asks her to marry him, Beauty agrees to be Beast's wife breaking a spell and returning Beast to his human self.  This being a castle, he is, of course, a prince.  And "Beauty and the prince lived happily ever after." 

As one of the early versions of the tale of Beauty and the Beast is the story of Cupid and Psyche, I decided to read Francesca Lia Block's take on that tale in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me.  But I'm going to wait to tell you about this story ("Psyche's Dark Night") until Monday when I'll be launching Mythology Mondays.  The story of Cupid and Psyche is as much a myth as it is a fairy tale so it seems like the perfect way to end the month of love and kick off the new feature. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Villette Readalong - Week 3?

Okay, well, technically it's week 2 for me but as it's week 3 for everyone else, we'll go with that.

When last we left Lucy Snowe, she was on a ship headed for France, with only the vaguest idea what she would do when she got there.  On the ship, she met a young girl, Ginerva Fanshawe, who confided that she was on her way to school in Villette.  So off to Villette Lucy headed.  Despite the fact that she speaks no French, Lucy managed to get all of the way to Villette and completely by mistakes finds herself at the door of the very school Miss Fanshawe spoke of.

Madame Beck, the proprietress of the school, hires Lucy as a nanny to her two young children, primarily it appears, because she is English.  Also because Madame Beck is kind of crazy about letting employees go.  Which soon results in Lucy finding herself as a teacher.

And now things are really picking up...and love is in the air.  Ginerva confides that she has a young man whom she calls "Isidore" who is buying her expensive baubles and before long we discover that this is none other than the doctor that has become a frequent visitor at the school.  He also happens to be the son of Lucy's godmother who she hasn't seen in many years, but he doesn't recall her. Lucy's godmother, Mrs. Bretton, is also staying in Villette.  Lucy discovers this when she collapses after a long walk in the rain while she is suffering from exhaustion and depression after being left alone in the school for many weeks. 

So it turns out that Lucy, who has known all along that Dr. John was Graham Bretton, is not a reliable narrator, that she will hide things from us. At the time Villette was written, this was an unusual twist marking Bronte as a writer who was willing to take a chance.  In these chapters, Bronte once again points out the degree to which Lucy's station in life has changed and the effect this has had on her.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
304 pages
Published January 2006 by Simon and Schuster
Source: borrowed from a friend

Jeannette Walls, father, though brilliant and charismatic, was also an alcoholic who found it impossible to hold down a job.  Her mother was an artistic personality, who appears to have suffered from bipolar disorder and who had not the least compunction about supporting her family despite being educated as a teacher.  And yet these two people thought it would be a good idea to have children.

When she was only three years old, Jeanette set herself on fire cooking hot dogs while her mother was painting a picture in the next room. It was par for the course in the Walls' household.  Rex and Rosemary Walls were so wrapped up in their own dreams that they often couldn't be bothered to take care of their children's needs or supervise them in any way.  They used the excuse that they were helping their children to become self-sufficient and Rosemary believed that children shouldn't be "burdened with too many rules and regulations."

Remarkably, in some ways they were also very good parents in the children's younger years.  Rex taught them about physics, geology, and astronomy and made them believe in chasing your dreams.  Rosemary taught them art, reading and an appreciation for nature.  When Jeannette was young she became afraid one night that there was some sort of creature in her bedroom. Rex not only didn't try to tell her that her fears were not legitimate, he gave her the ability to fight them.  And, to some extent, the children bought into the idea that they were always on a great adventure, even when it meant they had to pull up stakes and leave town with nothing more than what would fit in their car.

But as the children got older they began to realize how much harder their life was than it needed to be.  They started to question why their father should spend grocery money on alcohol and pie-in-the-sky schemes and why their mother should spend her days writing novels instead of working when they could not afford to heat their homes.  When Jeannette was just nine, Rosemary's mother died leaving them money, a furnished home and land in Texas.  Somehow Rex and Jeannette managed to squander it all and soon they were involving their children in bank scams and shop lifting.

Eventually, the family was forced to head to West Virginia and the family that Rex had worked so hard to avoid for so many years.  With good reason.  Everyone in it was also an alcoholic and some of them were even pedophiles.  Things had been bad in California and Arizona; they were much worse in West Virginia.  The family became the laughingstock of the town, there was more often not no heat or electricity. The house leaked, it was falling apart and the children had to dig through the garbage after the other children had eaten at school to have food for lunch. When the children found a diamond ring on their property, Rosemary kept it for herself instead of selling it to pay bills or buy food.  When Rex needed he cash, he once used Jeannette as bait while he hustled a man, essentially pimping out his daughter.

No wonder then that all four of the children left home before they were out of high school.  Their parents followed them to New York where they continued to inflict emotional pain on their children.  When Jeannette was a grown adult, she discovered that what she had assumed was worthless land in Texas was actually quite valuable and that her mother had been holding out on them during all those years of poverty.
"All those years in Welch with no food, no coal, no plumbing and Mom had been sitting on land worth a million dollars? Had all those years...been a caprice inflicted on us by Mom?"
It became harder and harder to read this book as it went on. As a person whose life has revolved around her children for more than 20 years, it is unfathomable to me that any two people could be so selfish, even given their demons. Walls does a marvelous job of portraying her parents as something more than just people who deprived their children for years; she has worked hard to find the motives behind their actions (or just as often inaction).  Rex was very proud of what his children became and he and Rosemary deserve their share of credit for the successes the their children have had.  They would certainly not be the people they are today had they been raised in any other way.  They are all bright, hardworking, contributing members of society despite having not had that example set for them.
"One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree.  I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house.  I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

Mom frowned at me.  "You'd be destroying what makes it special," she said.  "It's the Joshua tree's struggle that give it it's beauty."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Salon - February 20

It's been a slow reading week again; I've been distracted by the spring-like weather we've been enjoying.  Throwing doors and windows open makes me feel the need to start washing down walls and cleaning out closets. 

I read "One Amazing Thing" by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and am now back to reading "The Glass Castle" all while trying to catch up with the "Villette" readalong.  I was surprised to realize, well into "Villette," that I have already read it.  Does not remember reading  it mean that I really didn't like it?  Do I keep reading if it was that unmemorable for me?  I'm sure I will; I'm not good about giving up on a book.

We're watching a t.v. show about Perseus this morning and it's once again reminding me of how much I enjoyed my Greek mythology class as a college freshman.  And how little I remember about mythology.  So I'm wondering if I can squeeze in "Mythology Monday" as well as "Fairy Tale Fridays" and still find the time to read books.  Perhaps a monthly thing?

I'm going to be finishing "The Glass Castle" this week and starting "Beatrice and Virgil" by Yann Martel for a TLC book tour in March.  What are you reading this week?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - Rapunzel

This week's fairy tale love story is "Rapunzel."  The story of "Rapunzel" as we are most familiar with it is the Grimm Brothers version.Here's something interesting I found while researching the tale of Rapunzel, however, a side by side comparison of the Grimm Brothers' take on the Rapunzel.  It appears that even the good brothers had multiple versions of the tale!

The Brothers Grimm was adapted their story from "Persinette" which was written in 1698 by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (the dauphine of Louis XIV of France).  Another influence on the familiar tale was "Petrosinella" told by Giambattista Basile (yeah, him again). But the origins of "Rapunzel" are much older.  A 10th-century Persian fairy tale, Rudaba, appears to be the original twist on the tale of a woman letting down her hair for access to her tower prison.

Once again we have a fairy tale that opens with a couple wishing for a child.  In their home, there is a small window in back that overlooks a walled garden owned by a witch.  One day as the woman is looking out at the garden she sees some rampion radish (rapunzel) and is overcome with a desire to have some. Eventually her craving becomes so great that she tells her husband she will die without eating some.  So two nights in a row he risks the witch to get his wife some rampion.  But on the second night the witch catches him.  When he tells her why he is there, she allows him to take all he wants in order to keep his wife alive but the cost will be his unborn child (although the version I read doesn't say so, it's clear that the woman's insatiable craving is a result of pregnancy).  The man agrees and when the child is born, the witch takes her and locks her in a tower where there are no stairs or doorways.  To gain access the witch calls to the child, Rapunzel, to lower her hair which the witch scales to reach the top.  One day a prince riding nearby hears Rapunzel singing and is enchanted.  But he can't figure out how to get to her until he happens to see the witch, one night, calling out to Rapunzel.  The next day he does the same thing.  Of course, Rapunzel, who until then had never seen a man, falls in love with him and allows the prince to visit her daily and they devise a plan to help Rapunzel escape.  But just before they are able to effect the escape, Rapunzel lets slip to the witch that the prince has been visiting.  The witch chops off Rapunzel's hair then takes her to a remote desert.  When the prince returns, the witch lowers the Rapunzel's hair.  When the prince reaches the summit, the witch tells him he will never see Rapunzel again but before she can kill him, the prince leaps from the tower.  He survives but has landed in thorns which blind him, fulfilling the witch's prophecy.  Despondent, the prince wanders then land until one day he stumbles upon Rapunzel.  Recognizing him, she cries because of what has happened to him.  Miraculously, her tears heal his eyes and the couple...and their child...return to the prince's kingdom.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Villette Readalong

Wallace of Unputdownables is hosting a readalong of Charlotte Bronte's Villette.  Which started last week but I had completely forgotten about until I started reading those first posts.  So I'm starting late.  I'd hoped to be caught up this week but no such luck. Villette was Charlotte's last novel, published in 1853.  Many people consider it to be a greater work than Bronte's Jane Eyre.

This week I read the first five chapters in which we're introduced to our narrator, Lucy Snowe.  Much of what we learn about Lucy, we learn from hints of her past.  I'm wondering if Bronte will just leave us to wonder what might have happened or if we will learn more as the story progresses.  We first meet Lucy when she is 14 and spending some months with her godmother.  In the next chapter we've skipped forward eight years.  Bronte leads us to understand that some tough things have happened to Lucy, but again, we don't learn much as to what they might be.

I think I'm going to like Lucy very much--she's one very brave girl.  After spending some years working for an invalid (Miss Marchmont, who passes away), Lucy makes the decision to head to London without any references or family to stay with.  From there she decides, almost immediately, that she wants to go to France to find work there.  At then end of Chapter Five, the ship is just taking leave of the English coast and Lucy is becoming acquainted with her fellow passengers.

I'm a cowardly, nervous Nelly--I can't imagine making such big changes in my life, although Lucy feels that she hasn't much choice.  Perhaps in her shoes, I might be a little more courageous.  But I doubt it!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guest Review: Kill Me by Stephen White

Kill Me by Stephen White
512 pages
Published March 2007 by Penguin Group

I've always been grateful to my parents for instilling a love of reading in me.  Now I'm also grateful to them for their continued support of my blog, including numerous guest reviews.  Here's one from Mama Shepp's mama!

Many people choose the next book they want to read based on the author or the topic of the book.  And that has been true with my husband and me.  That is, until it is time to get in the car and spend the five plus hours required to visit our No. 1 son.  We make the miles appear to go faster by listening to a book.  But the book is chosen not by topic or author (although that can play a part) but by the number of disks in the package.  We have timed it so we know how much we can hear and get the book finished by the time we pull back into our driveway.

It was thus that we stumbled upon a book by Stephen White.  We were delighted and found our trip flew by as we were caught up in his characters, plot, and descriptive writing.  Thus is has been no surprise that we have added more of his books to our reading piles.  His books tend to be built around a psychologist Dr. Alan Gregory and his sidekick the local law enforcement.  Usually the books are set in Colorado.  KILL ME is set in Colorado but in this novel Dr. Gregory is used only as a listening board for much of the book until the end when he becomes the narrator and finishes the story.

Our hero (if that is how you might describe him) goes on a skiing trip and while there learns that one of his best friends has been seriously injured in a cave accident leaving him in a vegetative state for the rest of his life.  Just as this is happening, our narrator is involved in a skiing accident of a relatively minor nature but which could have been much more devastating.  But it is enough for his friend Jimmy Lee to step forward and present to him the idea that for a large sum of money (our narrator is extremely wealthy) you can buy a deal wherewith you will not be allowed to ever live in a vegetative state or suffer long months from some incurable disease.  The company will step in to kill him, making the death look normal and creating no suspicion.  He likes the idea and quietly buys into the program without telling his wife or anyone else. 

As was probably to be expected, our “victim” develops a brain tumor and realizes that his time is limited.  However, he has recently discovered that he has a son from a one-night stand many years ago and feels he has unfinished business with this son before he is ready to die.  He then sets about trying to outwit the Death Angels to allow him to have more time.  He is comfortable with leaving his wife and daughters–they will be well provided–but the son must have some type of peace with his life.  From this point, the story becomes a hide-and-go-seek type of story with many twists and turns and suspense.  We learn far more about the narrator’s character and that of the attractive woman who comes to “help” him elude the Angels (his term for the organization). 

The book is well written and covers a topic that was completely new to me.  I spent the time hoping he would outsmart the Death Angels and considering the wisdom or lack thereof of making such a deal if it were offered to me.  Will he outwit the Angels?  Will he seek a relationship with his son?  Will a cure for his tumor be developed?  Will he leave his wife for the woman who tries to “help” him with his dilemma?   These are just a few of the questions that are answered in this book.

If you are lured into reading this book, then I strongly recommend you also read MISSING PERSONS which is even better.  No wonder I have a stack of White novels sitting by my bed luring me into using a lack of common sense when it comes to time to turn off the light and go to sleep.

Thanks, Mom!

Monday, February 14, 2011

America Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
576 pages
Published by Random House September 2008
Source: I own it

Alice Blackwell, First Lady of the United States of America, who may have just caused her husband one of his worst days as President, ponders the mistakes she has made and the path that has brought her to this point.

An only child, Alice grew up in a quiet household in Wisconsin.  Bookish and shy, Alice's grandmother was the only spice in her life.  And Andrew Imhof was the love of her life.  But when Alice was a senior, life became dramatically different for Alice.  Not that Alice was any less shy, nor was she any less bookish.  In fact, she went on to earn a Master's degree and became a school librarian and rarely dated or had boyfriends.  But when Alice, just over thirty, met Charlie Blackwell, her life really did change. Within a few weeks Alice found herself engaged to Charlie and soon became a part of his large, very boisterous, very rich and very political family. 

Life with Charlie is not easy.  His position in the family business seems to be largely in name only, he drinks too much and he not infrequently embarrasses Alice.  But she loves him so she stays quiet and copes as best she can.  When he begins a career in politics, it is the last thing that Alice wants to be a part of, but again she stays quiet and copes as best she can. And that's how she finds herself First Lady, still trying to cope as best she can.

Curtis Sittenfeld was quick to say, when this book first came out, that Alice Blackwell, the protagonist of American Wife, is not Laura Bush.  But so many key events in the book were also key events in Mrs. Bush's life, it was all but impossible for me not to spend the entire book wondering which parts were based on reality. Which really distracted me from the story.  There is a tragic accident that really happened, George Bush really did come from a large, boisterous family and he really did drink too much, didn't work much and was part owner of a baseball team before going into politics.

The story is told first person, by Alice, and she spends a lot of time trying to figure out her relationship with Charlie.  Why is she drawn to him when he is so far from the person she imagined she would spend her life with?  Why does he want to be married to her?
"I was marrying him because I enjoyed his company.  And I was, from his point of view, a serious person--he saw me the way I had seen Simon--and it was my seriousness that fundamentally affirmed Charlie, explaining away his playfulness as a superficial distraction, alluding to hidden reservoirs of wisdom and stability.  If Charlie Blackwell was really a spoiled lightweight, Alice Lindgren would not have been marrying him; we both needed to believe it.  But again, as I said: This is the conclusion I pretended not to have drawn."
"I was now married (married) to an aspiring politician from a smug and ribald family, I had a mother-in-law who didn't like me, my husband was a man who basically (I rarely, even in the privacy of my own head, admitted this) did not hold a job.  I'd been meant to grow old in Riley; I'd never been meant for ribaldry or riches."
And yet she stays with him.  And puts up with him.  And I just wanted to slap her.  Also, I began to feel, by about page 300 that all of Alice's thinking was just so...self-indulgent.  It was clear to me that Sittenfeld holds Mrs. Bush, thus Alice, in high esteem.  But I couldn't and it made getting through the book work, not pleasure.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Salon - February 13

Cold is all relative, isn't it? In August, forty degrees sounds wintery cold, hat and mittens and winter coat cold.  But this week, after ice and snow and temps below 0, forty degrees sounds like it might just be warm enough to throw open the windows for a little while!

Last week I told you about a shorty story competition called Shattering The Glass Slipper, hosted by Stephanie of Misfit Salon and Simcha of SSF Chat.  The two of them have narrowed the entries down to ten finalists and are asking for you help in determining a winner.  Click on the link to read the ten great selections and cast your vote any time before February 21st.  There are really some creative takes on the Cinderella tale to choose from!
There's been a lot of buzz about Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother lately.  To read a perspective about the political ideas that Chua may be secretly espousing disguised as a memoir, check out "Battle Shrug of the Democracy Dad" by Michael Bourne at The Millions.

Read Safe From The Sea this week and it managed to do to me what few books have ever managed to do--it made me cry.  Twice.  I may have already read the book that will end up being my favorite book of the year. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Short Stories by Edith Wharton: The Dilettante, The Fulness of Life and The Quicksand

Before I go any further, I need to ask you something.  Does Edith Wharton look a little bit like Almira Gulch, Dorothy's neighbor who tried to take Toto away, in this picture?  I keep looking at this expecting Ms. Wharton to turn into a wicked witch at any moment. But I seriously digress.

Since I changed positions at work, it's hard for me to find big enough chunks of time to listen to novels while I'm working.  Thanks to Librivox for having several short story collections available, including some from Edith Wharton.  Have I mentioned before how much I love her writing?  When Wharton paints a picture of a scene down to the tiniest detail, I find it everything about it fascinating where in other authors I would find this trait quite tedious. Ms. Wharton's short stories were no exception.

I listened to three stories: "The Dilettante," "The Fulness of Life," and "The Quicksand." As with most of her works, Wharton has populated these stories with upper classes characters, exposing their faults.

Young Trusdale, in "The Dilettante," is what might be called, in today's parlance, a "playa."  He takes great pleasure in enjoying the company of ladies but only on his own terms.  This seems to have been working quite well for him and in Mrs Vervain he seems to have a companion who will play along with him.  Miss Gaynor is his latest conquest. But before he can even realize just how fond he has become of her, she discovers him for what he is, leaving both Trusdale and Mrs. Vervain troubled by what they have become.

In "The Quicksand" we meet Mrs. Quentin, a rich woman who wants perfection in all things and believes that her son, Alan, is perfect.  Further, she believes that she is intuitive where Alan is concerned and is surprised when he tells her that a young woman has turned down his marriage proposal because he runs a newspaper.  He, in turn, is upset with the young woman. Hope Feeno, because she thinks too much.  Because Alan asks her to, Mrs. Quentin visits Hope, although she really has no desire to change Hope's mind.  Some time later, Mrs. Quentin comes across Hope, who confesses that she believes she made a mistake in refusing Alan.  But Mrs. Quentin, who has had the time to reflect on her own marriage and the way her husband's money sucked her into staying with him despite her misgivings about the newspaper, finds that she is glad that Hope refused Alan.  Upon talking to Hope, Mrs. Quentin had discovered that what she found in Hope made her want Hope for a daughter-in-law while at the same time making her sure that Hope was best off away from the very son that Mrs. Quentin adored.

"The Fulness of Life" is the bittersweet story of a woman who has died and discovers that in the afterlife she will finally be able to find the fulness of life she never found while she was alive.  When the Spirit of Life shows her that her soul mate has been waiting for her, a mate who in every way reflects her every passion, the woman discovers that she cannot bear that thought that her husband, who believes that he had found his soul mate in her, will spend all eternity waiting for her.  Beyond the end of life itself, it seems that she is destined to the be devoted wife.

Listening to these short stories was like taking a sip of water that only makes you realize that you are incredibly thirsty.  I foresee The House of Mirth in my near future!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - Sleeping Beauty

Giambattista Basile.  There's a name I had never heard of until last week when I was researching Cinderella.  This week he turned up again when I began researching Sleeping Beauty.  Just who was this guy?  Basile was a Venetian who is chiefly known for writing a collection of fairy tales, first published after his death in about 1634.  The collection was basically forgotten until the Brothers Grimm commended it for being the first national collection of fairy tales.  Battista's version of the Sleeping Beauty tale was called "Sun, Moon and Talia."

Sixty years after Basile's collection was first published, Charles Perrault published his version of the Sleeping Beauty tale.  While Perrault made some changes to the story (notably in Basile's version the sleep was not caused by a curse but by a prophesy and some sites mentioned that Basile's tale actually had the prince raping the sleeping princess), much of the story remained the same.

I found Perrault's version in A Child's Book of Stories but I clearly hadn't read this particular tale to my children.  I'm sure I would have remembered that the story did not end with the prince waking the princess up with a kiss and then the two of them marrying.  Instead, after they are married the prince must split his time between the princess and his own kingdom in order to hide his marriage (and eventually his two children) from his mother.  She is an Ogress. who, as it happens, likes to eat children.  After a couple of years and the death of the King, the prince brings his family to his own kingdom.  Some after that, when the prince must be away from the kingdom for some time, his mother decides she'll eat the children and the princess.  The cook cannot make himself kill them and hides them.  When the Ogress finds out that she's been duped, she makes preparations to kill the three of them as well as the cook and his family.  Fortunately, in true fairy tale fashion, the prince arrives just in time and saves the day. 

Having read the Perrault version, I was eager to get to the Brothers Grimm version. If Perrault's version is that gruesome, what might the Grimms have done with it?  Not much, as it turns out.  At least not as related in Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales where the story ended exactly has I grew up believing it ended.  Something of a disappointment, I must admit.

More than three hundred years later, Rabih Alameddine wrote "A Kiss To Wake The Sleeper" for My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me.  While Alameddine's tale is informed by the Sleeping Beauty tale, he does away with the "how it all happened" as well as everything that surrounds the sleeping princess.  Instead, while she sleeps in a tower, everything with three leagues of her has died, the surrounding country a desert.  Our narrator, a young girl with a severe disorder that's required her to spend her life in a bubble.  The young girl's mother hears of a group of nuns who may be able to help her daughter.  When she brings the girl to the nuns, they send her off to find the princess.  Eventually the girl tires of the princess' perfection and longs for some change in the surrounding.  No sooner does she wish for it, than things begin to change radically. Dangerous animals begin to appear, dangerous plants to grow all around the tower.  An old crone appears and hundreds of princes' begin to try to make their way to the tower.  When one finally succeeds, things get more than a little R-rated as the prince wakes the princess.  Yeah, this book is not for your grandma.  But then I'm not so sure, the further I look into fairy tales, that fairy tales are for children.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R Saks
352 pages
Published October 2007 by Hyperion
Source: a book club friend

When Elyn Saks was eight years old, she began having night terrors and developed obsessive compulsions.  That alone would have been a frightening development.  Then one day she was walking home from school and thought that the houses were sending her messages.  Even so, this was nothing compared to what would eventually happen.  After completing her Bachelor's degree at Vanderbilt, Saks went to Oxford to study.  It was there that things went from very bad to absolutely terrifying.  She began hearing voices in her head and having suicidal thoughts.  She was hospitalized and spent years in therapy, including an extra year after she was done at Oxford just because she was unable/unready to leave therapy.

After all of that, Saks did not really think she was ill.  She sincerely believed that everyone had these voices in their heads, these thoughts, but that they were better able to control them.  And with the right therapy, she believed that she, too, should be able to control the thoughts.  Even after she had another psychotic break while attending Yale Law School, one that initiated her into the horrifying world of inpatient "care" for psychiatric patients in the United States, Saks continued to believe that she should be able to fight these thoughts.
"To be weak is to fail; to let down your guard is to surrender; and to give up is to dismiss the power of your own will."
Saks battled taking medication for her symptoms, sometimes with disastrous consequences, for years.  Given the side effects and long-term effects, it's hard not to understand why she would be so adamant.  But the result was that she frequently found herself on a roller coaster of psychosis and often at odds with her doctors.  Further, Saks had been in therapy for years before she finally received the diagnosis that she had been fighting--schizophrenia.
"Schizophrenia rolls in like a slow fog, becoming imperceptibly thicker as time goes on.  At first, the day is bright enough, the sky is clear; the sunlight warms your shoulders.  But soon, you notice a haze beginning to gather around you, and the air feels not quite so warm.  After a while, the sun is a dim lightbulb behind a heavy cloth. The horizon has vanished into a gray mist, and you feel a thick dampness in your lungs as you stand, cold and wet, in the afternoon dark."
Despite this enormous obstacle, the numerous setbacks, the therapy, the medication, Saks managed to earn numerous degrees, become a tenured professor and finally find the love of her life.  What Saks has been able to accomplish is impressive, particularly in light of her diagnosis.

If you follow me on Twitter, you got pretty used to reading tweets from me saying how much this book was scaring me.  Of all of the things that worry a mother, I long ago added the fear that one day one of my kids would develop schizophrenia.  It was my boys I was most worried about; statistically, schizophrenia is more common in males. So for all of these years, I've been sure that I could finally relax about this concern once Mini-me made it through his early twenties (most males develop schizophrenia in their late teens/early twenties).  When I was handed this book, the idea that a woman had suffered so profoundly made me rethink my worries.  Clearly I was going to need to add my daughter to my concern about this disorder.

Then I discovered that Saks had begun having unusual symptoms as a young child.  Well, good then, none of my children suffered from any thing like this.  They're safe, right?  Wrong.  Saks, in addition to suffering from this disorder, has studied it extensively and shares what she's learned.  One of those things is that symptoms we may overlook, particularly in teens, may actually be early warning signs--bouts of depression, inability to focus.  Also, for females, the onset of full-blown schizophrenia might not manifest until the late twenties.  So now I find that I have another 15 years to worry.

Reading about what Saks has been through is heartbreaking, frightening and, eventually uplifting.  She is incredibly detailed in describing her episodes, treatment and inner thoughts which is insightful but I must admit that at a certain point, I began to feel like it might have been too much detail.  As bad as her episodes were, they began to blend in my mind and started to lose some of their emotional punch.  Saks does a lot of writing but her writing is primarily articles for law magazines and books about the mental disorders and diseases. It leaves the book lacking emotional depth, particularly later in the book.  I learned a great deal but readers should know going in that this is every bit as much a lesson about the disorder and treatment as it is a story of Saks' own battle.

Monday, February 7, 2011

One More Challenge - The Last One - I Think

This one has intrigued me since I first found out about it but I was determined to keep the number of challenges down this year.  But since I'm making reading more historical fiction one of my goals for the year, this just seems like a great one to encourage myself.  So I'm signing on for the Struggling The Addction level which means I need to read ten books between the first of the year and December 31st.

Since I've already finished two historical fiction books in January (Wench and The Gentleman Poet), I'm off to a good start! And with the fiction choices I have set aside for the War Through The Generations Challenge and my other challenges, this should fit in nicely.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Salon - February 6

 A short one this morning because I'm reading and getting ready to cheer on the Packers.  Found this great picture at where they are talking about fairy tales and thought it tied in perfectly with last week's Fairy Tale Friday featuring Cinderella.

Stephanie, from Misfit Salon, is co-creator of "Shattering The Glass Slipper", a creative writing contest featuring original works based on the Cinderella stories.  Entries are posted at the site and, as of tomorrow,you can vote for the winner. I'm very impressed by some of the submissions they've gotten.

Coming up this week I'll have a review of Elyn R. Saks' memoir The Center Cannot Hold as well as reviews of several short stories.  For this week's Fairy Tale Fridays, I'll be talking about the various versions of Sleeping Beauty.  Talk about a girl who needed saving!

What are you reading this week?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Another Read-A-Thon!

I'm at again--anther readathon!  Wallace from Unputdownables is hosting a 48 Hour Read-a-Thon and since I've got a pretty clear weekend, I'm using this readathon as the perfect excuse to spend as much time as possible reading.  My primary goal is to get through Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife.  It's not that it's a bad book, but it's long and I've been distracted this week and it's time to get it read!  No special snacks on hand for this one, although I do feel that I may have to break long enough to bake some banana bread.  Or chocolate chip cookies.  Or both.  Gotta go get another cuppa coffee and get back to the book!

Saturday Morning Update:
I got 100 pages of American Wife read last night into this morning and hope to get another 200 pages read today at least.  Much more than that is probably not doable--it may be a weekend without anything on the calendar but it's not a weekend without laundry and bathrooms that need to be cleaned. Off to bake that banana bread now.  And it's probably about time to get out of my pajamas. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - Cinderella

In honor of this being the month of love, I thought it was only appropriate that we look at some of the princess fairy tales in February.  Kicking it off is the tale of Cinderella.  There are thousands of versions of the tale of Cinderella from countries all over the world as from as far back as 100 B.C.

One of the earliest versions to incorporate the wicked stepmother, stepsisters, slipper and hunt by the king for the owner of the slipper was written in 1634 by Giambattista Basile, an Italian. But it was Charles Perrault who introduced the elements of the fairy godmother, the pumpkin and the glass slipper in 1697.

 In the 19th century, the Brothers Grimm recorded the German version of the tale which is called Aschenputtel.  In this version, there is no fairy godmother.  Cinderella receives help from a tree growing on her mother's grave.  The wicked step-sisters do much more than just try to squeeze their feet into the slipper; they each cut off a portion of their foot to make it fit.  And the retribution for their meanness to Cinderella in this version?  Not her forgiveness and generosity, which they find in the Perrault version.  In true Grimm Brother's fashion, pigeons pluck their eyes out.

I found the Perrault version of this tale on a new-to-me site called SurLaLune Fairy Tales.  This is the version that Disney adapted, although they did include the birds that help Cinderella in the German version.  Of course they did; they're Disney and there always have to be helpful animals.  Except that, not surprisingly, the animals in the Brothers Grimm tale do not talk and sing. In Perrault's hands, the stepsisters are ugly and Cinderella's father was a doormat for her stepmother and allowed his daughter to be treated like a servant.  No wonder she was so eager to rush off and marry a man she hardly knew who seemed to only love her for her looks.

 In the Grimm Brothers version of the tale, beauty inside doesn't equate to beauty inside; the stepsisters are also beautiful on the outside.  But once again, Cinderella's father seems to have forgotten that the third girl in the house is his own flesh and blood.  I was happy to see the my Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales included a version of this story that had not been sanitized.  When the slipper doesn't fit the first stepsister, the stepmother hands her a knife, telling her to cut off her toe, which she does, making the slipper fit.  Off she rides to be wed to the prince but singing birds betray her secret.  The second stepsister then tries on the slipper and is convinced by her own mother to cut off part of her heel to make the slipper fit. She, too, is betrayed by a bird.  At the wedding procession of the Prince and Cinderella, the stepsisters, wishing to curry favor, walk alongside the carriage but pigeons deliver their just reward by plucking out their eyes.

In My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, Stacey Richter uses the basic premise of the Cinderella story (girl is saved by boy) in a modern setting where being swept off your feet by a man is not necessarily a good thing.  In A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility, our young heroine was actually kidnapped by Prince, a meth making, hog riding, gang member who turns his Princess into the premier meth maker in the area as well as an addict.  The story is written in the style of an actual case study, citing notes and records from Princess' time spent in rehab.  It's an unusual way to tell a story but it works well, probably because it was inspired by actual research into methamphetamine conducted while Richter was also contemplating a fairy tale she was writing for a friend.  Lesson to all of the young girls out there: boys are bad!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
208 pages
First published 1975, published December 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher

Kaarlo Vatanen, Finnish journalist, and his photographer are headed by to Helsinki late one day when they accidentally hit a hare, injuring it.  Vatanen goes off in pursuit of the hare and  when he doesn't quickly return, the photographer leaves without him.  By the time the night has passed, Vatanen has made the decision that he will not be returning to life as he has known it.
"Early in his marriage his wife had single-mindedly set out to assemble a common domicile, a home. Their apartment had become an extravagant farrago of shallow and meretricious interior-decoration tips from women's magazines.  A pseudo-radicalism governed the design, with huge posters and clumsy modular furniture.  It was difficult to inhabit the rooms without injury; all the items were at odds.  The home was distinctly reminiscent of Vatanen's marriage."
Vatanen makes the decision that he is no longer content to just exist but really wants to enjoy his life.  So, taking odd jobs to support himself, Vatanen and the hare, make their way across the country.  Along the way, they meet an assortment of people, some very kind but so many more who are thoughtless and cruel.  It's truly a sign of happiness that Vatanen finds in this new life that despite all of the terrible people that he meets and all of the bureaucracy that he encounters, the book is filled with humor and never feels heavy.  The hare helps.  Seriously.  Vatanen is sleeping in a church when the minister comes in and finds the hare, who has left pellets, if you will, at the altar.  Incensed, the minister begins chasing the hare all over the church, even begins firing a pistol at it, eventually shooting himself in the foot.

Vatanen is no saint.  Besides walking out on his wife (okay, she was really no prize), when Vatanen volunteers to help scare the animals out of a forest and alert the humans in the path of a forest fire, he comes across a drunk and the two become so drunk they are unable to flee.  Another time he is purposely cruel to a raven, fixing a can of meat so that the raven's head becomes trapped in the can.
"There was more raven's blood in the tin than meat, he knew, and there was enough cruelty in him to laugh out loud at his foul play."
Publisher's Weekly calls it "baldly obvious in the way that parables often are."  To some extent that is true and yet I was often surprised by the story.  I'm a little surprised to find that this book is so popular world-wide, though.  Perhaps it's the spare translation, but I felt the story was  light and didn't pull me in; I found myself more curious to see what might happen next than particularly caring what happened to Vartanen himself.

Still it was an enjoyable journey and I'm glad that I read it as part of my effort to read more works by non-U.S. writers.