Completed: All the Crooked Saints

The first miracle was this: making the darkness visible.

Sadness is a little like darkness. They both begin in the same way. A tiny, thin pool of uneasiness settles in the bottom of the gut. Sadness simmers fast and boils hard and then billows up and out, filling first the stomach, then heart, then lungs, then legs, then arms, then up into the throat, then pressing against eardrums, then swelling against skull and eventually spilling out of eyes in a hissing release. Darkness, though, grows like a cave formation. Slow drips from the uneasiness harden over the surface of a slick knob of pain. Over time, the darkness crusts in unpredictable layers, growing at such a pace that one doesn’t notice it has filled every cavern under the skin until movement becomes difficult or even impossible.

Darkness never boils over. Darkness remains inside. (Ch. 4)

Cover: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie StiefvaterAll the Crooked Saints
Maggie Stiefvater
US, 2017

When I first heard about All the Crooked Saints, I didn’t think I would rush out to read it when it came out; something about the description failed to grab me. But as it grew closer to publication date, and seeing more about it online, I decided to place a hold at the library and a short time after its release I had it in my hands. It turned out, for various reasons, to be the perfect book at just that time.

Set in 1960s Colorado, All the Crooked Saints is the story of the Soria family, some of whose members can perform the miracle of giving physical shape to another’s darkness. That person must then complete the hard work of overcoming the darkness for themselves, and a Soria must never help—for then their own darkness will be made manifest, and a Soria’s darkness is said to be greater than any other’s.

Although it is not a very long book (around 300 pages if I recall correctly), it is even lighter on plot, with a story spanning only a few short days. But with a wide and varied cast of characters, it is more intent on their inner lives and the desolate, but beautiful, landscape that surrounds them. Each character carries some sort of “darkness,”—either of their own making or of external forces (or a combination of both)—whether or not it has been made manifest for all to see. Just as the physical form of the darkness prevents the pilgrim from leaving the confines of the Soria compound, so their previous internal darkness prevented them from leaving some hinderance behind, from moving forward. Although at times the point seemed overly-direct, All the Crooked Saints is Steifvater’s metaphor for how she feels we should all approach our own inner demons, with hard work that ultimately only we can solve, not anyone around us, a message no less true for its directness. And ultimately it is also a story about hope, something that is so easy to lose when all of the news and social media around us seem to want to inspire us to despair instead.

Her dress was wet, and so was her skin. This was because, despite the porch roof, it was raining on her. Rain originated from nowhere and spattered on her hair and face and shoulders and clothing, then ran off the stairs and formed a fast-running rivulet into the brush. Every part of her dress was covered with monarch butterflies, their orange-and-black stained-glass wings likewise soaked. They clung to her, unable to do anything but slowly move their wings or climb across the fabric. (Ch 3)

Unlike her previous novels, All the Crooked Saints departs from Stiefvater’s beloved Celtic mythology in favor of Mexican folklore, and also sets aside her more familiar fantasy techniques for the realm of magical realism, stretching and straining the bounds of reality in such a matter-of-fact way, that even the more surprising of the miracles seem natural. The previous Stiefvater fiction I’ve read has always remained so grounded in the familiar world, however, that this doesn’t feel so great of a departure, and at times, it seemed to me less “magical realism” and more “tall tale” – prompting me to wonder, what the bounds are of each? A line of investigation, if my library pile weren’t pointedly reminding me of other obligations, I would follow up on sooner rather than later.

Completed: ‘Salem’s Lot

As I ease my way back into blogging (i.e., struggle to remember that I’m supposed to take some time to actually write about books), I recalled two things:

1) I never remembered to “close out” my Readathon post. If you’re deathly curious, I managed 248 pages over 6.25 hrs of actual reading time. Which, admittedly, in a 24-hour period doesn’t sound like a lot, but a) I was unfortunately rather sleep-deprived heading into readathon and b) for me that’s rather good lately. Those 248 pages included rereads from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (‘textbook’ version, not the movie screenplay version) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, both by JK Rowling, plus a good chunk of Blood Crime by Catalan author Sebastià Alzamora (accidentally timely, given the recent political upheaval in Catalan/Spain).

2) I had a draft of a post I had started this summer for a book that, given the “spooky season” we are just departing seemed completely appropriate to finish up and share now. [Yes, I’m a little behind. I’m calling this progress.]

‘Salem’s Lot
Stephen King
US, 1975

Cover: 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King (mass market paperback)I picked ‘Salem’s Lot off my bookshelf this past summer on a whim—I was looking for something that would read quickly, to kick-start me back into better reading habits, but also a “gown-up” book to convince myself that I was capable of reading anything more complex than Beatrix Potter. (Slow reading spring, can you tell?) Though long, it worked—I found I could fly through pages even in just a short sitting, which is often all I have available.

‘Salem’s Lot is Stephen King’s vampire novel, an exploration of the idea “what if Dracula arrived in the 20th century US?” As such, it is—King acknowledges—heavily indebted to the 1897 Bram Stoker novel. But even with my fond familiarity with Dracula (I’ve read it twice) and the clear direction of the story—I had a fairly good idea shortly in who would/wouldn’t survive—I found it compulsively readable.

This was actually my first King novel, and really one of my few forays into the horror genre. I didn’t find it particularly frightening or even chilling; perhaps I’ve been jaded by the realities of actual events, but I find I am frightened not by fictional monsters, rather the real ones. Interestingly, King investigates this: some characters struggle to accept the reality of vampires in their community, because aren’t vampires fiction? Which forces the reader to realize, hey I might not be scared by this book, but if vampires really DID exist, really DID have such power—would I recognize it in time? More importantly, the vampires are ultimately a stand-in for the real monsters that King—and the reader—knows exist. The horror is not the something supernatural lurking in the dark of abandoned houses, it is the something all-too-human committing unspeakable acts, whether behind closed doors or openly but without correction.

In the end, what I found most interesting about the novel—though I enjoyed the story—is how it serves as an artifact of its time. The descriptions of hair styles and clothing. The references to wars, both Korea and Vietnam that are current in a way they aren’t today. The “politically incorrect” speech of the era, and the casual references to political corruption from an era in which the Watergate Scandal still poignantly stung. And yet we can still find parallels today, reminding us that though technologies may change (how would this story be different with cell phones?!), the human condition has not.

Although after one book, I’m not yet so much a Stephen King convert as to say I wish to read his entire backlist, I could see reading more at some point down the road—recommendations welcome!

Completed: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland RAL April 2017 250pxAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll
1865, England

It has been many years since I last visited Wonderland. I’ve only ever been there via the written word, all of the film adaptations seem to have passed me by. And so this reading surprised me. It was both familiar and un-, a return to somewhere I’ve been, a return to somewhere I didn’t recognize. While episodes such as the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the homicidal Queen screaming “Off with their heads!” and the Mad Hatter’s endless tea party are so familiar as to have become recognizable pop culture, I was surprised both at how much I remembered of the Pig and Pepper chapter and yet the episodes with the Mock Turtle and the Griffin not at all.

That word, “episodes.” Although the action flows from one scene seamlessly–if sometimes incongruously–into the next, just as in a dream, it seems to be composed of episodes: the caucus race, the tea party, the croquet party, the trial, and so forth. There is not really a through plot line, it is Alice’s “adventures,” and adventures must always be unexpected. But Alice proves they need not always have a motive. (The closest we get to a motivation is Alice’s desire to enter a beautiful garden, but once that is accomplished we still have plenty of book left.)

It is a dream story–explicitly so–and so both nonsense and perfectly sensible in the way that all good dreams are. The delightfully odd mind that this must have sprung from! It is, I can tell, even without the annotations in the copy I read,* that these characters, these references must have meant something to the “original” Alice, Alice Liddell–surely she must have played croquet and with playing cards, knew the proper manners for tea, and had overheard talk of such mysterious things as “caucus races.” Even the poems Carroll parodies that are now largely forgotten (well, I do know “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) would likely have been familiar to her, perhaps learned for her lessons; recitation seems such a common occurrence here!

I was most surprised by the humor. Doubtless the jokes and puns passed my fourth-grade self by. It is meant to be a bit silly too, I think. Now that I have reread it, I have no desire to try to impart some sense, some greater meaning to it, for I am not convinced that any is intended. Perhaps as some scholars think, there are references to historical figures or perhaps it is full of symbolism and greater meaning. But I find that I am quite content to take it as it is, to let my inner child simply meet it with delight.

*The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, Introduction and Notes by Martin Gardner, 2000 ed. I have mixed feeling about annotated editions. Sometimes such notes are useful, other times they are merely distractions. Although sometimes interesting, here I thought they too often went on too long (no, I don’t care about the 1933 film version, I’m interested in the text) or into unnecessary deviations. The context provided and the reprinting of the rhymes Carroll was parodying could be useful, however.

Completed: Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals by Charles Perrault

I can’t believe it’s here already, but today marks the halfway point for the Classic Children’s Literature Event. Already! A gentle reminder to those reading, the discussion for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is planned for the weekend of April 21-23–just next weekend! (Though I won’t point fingers if you’re late.) I’d better get reading…

Cover: The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles PerraultTales and Stories of the Past with Morals [Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé]
Charles Perrault
(France, 1697)
Translator: Charles Welsh

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” paragraph 2)

One fairy tale often leads to another, and after completing my “Beauty and the Beast” binge, it was time to move on to some other tales. Charles Perrault’s Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals [Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé] is not only the oldest title on my Children’s Classics project list, but it also contains versions of some well-known fairy tales plus a few others that are less familiar.

It is likely that Perrault did not invent these tales, but rather that, like the Grimm brothers, he retold stories already in oral circulation. Or perhaps he merely published them; the end note in the edition I read references Les Contes de ma mère l’Oie avant Perrault (Paris, E. Dentu, 1878), in which author Charles Deulin takes the view that the stories were likely written down by Perrault’s young (10 0r 11) son, from memory of tales his father had told him. In this theory, the elder Perrault had collected the stories to retell in poetic form and had asked his son to write them down from memory as an exercise. Reading the clear prose of his son, he then opted to publish those versions instead.

Regardless of the actual origins, this little collection, published over the years in various titles and various English translations, has proven influential–on later tale collectors, on film-makers, and, of course, on readers.

Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper

A story with many varieties, Perrault’s Cinderella became the familiar Disney version. If you are at all familiar with the latter half of the Grimm version (which Stephen Sondheim would take up as one of several tales in his Into the Woods), the Perrault version is also a gentler version–no cutting off of appendages, no pecking out of eyes.

The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods

What starts out as the familiar “Sleeping Beauty” story takes a decided turn to the macabre, just as the reader thinks the story is nearly over. For Sleeping Beauty’s prince has an ogre for a mother, and she loves nothing better to eat than young children. While we know that most fairy tales will end “happily ever after,” this one takes two halves to get there.

Little Thumb

I’m not entirely sure if it’s fair to say I was familiar with this one, for I’m not sure I’ve read this exact tale before. However, it is familiar, for it seems to be a French version of “Hansel and Gretel,” complete with poor parents leaving children in the woods and first stones, then breadcrumbs as trails. The witch is replaced by an ogre (I’m beginning to sense a theme?), and our hero Little Thumb must use his wit and ingenuity (and perhaps a vengeful streak?) to save the day.

The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots

I know I’ve read at least a version of this story before, it is so familiar–and nothing like the animated Dreamworks film, of course! But it is a story of trickery and deception. The third son of a miller inherits only the cat (for there was little enough to divide between three sons) and believes himself unfortunate. Only this cat has the cunning and planning abilities to provide for his master–and thereby himself–much, much more.

Riquet with the Tuft

This could almost be a Beauty and Beast tale. Riquet of the title is a prince, but is terribly ugly. He falls in love with a beautiful Princess–only she has no sense, which here means wit and intelligence as well as common sense. Fortunately, the fairies have given both a gift: Riquet can give the gift of sense to the woman he falls in love with, and the Princess the gift of beauty to the man she loves. Not too hard to see where this one is going…

Blue Beard

At last, I have read “Blue Beard.” I’ve heard so many references (though I can’t remember all where, at least one L.M. Montgomery novel for sure) to this dark tale of a man who keeps the bodies of his dead wives locked in a room of his home (or castle). Although I’d not previously read this exact story, the themes of fatal (or near-fatal) curiosity and forbidden rooms are common throughout literature.

The Fairy

A clearly moral tale: a widow has two daughters, one she loves who is selfish and disagreeable and one she doesn’t who is good and kind. The kind daughter meets a fairy in disguise when she is sent to the well to draw water and is rewarded richly for her kind treatment of the fairy. So the beloved selfish daughter is sent to the well, with not quite as desired results!

Little Red Riding-Hood

This is not the “Little Red Riding-Hood” I know! It starts out the same, but then ends. Abruptly. Both Little Red Riding-Hood and her grandmother have been quite eaten and there is no woodsman’s rescue! Though this perhaps may make it a bit more realistic than the average fairy tale… Nor does there really seem to be a moral, for Little Red Riding-Hood is not warned against straying from the path or talking to strangers, as she is in other versions.

And here the Perrault fairy tales end, on quite the somber note. Though, it is no wonder they remain at least somewhat popular, for they are quite readable and have an element of charm to them, even at their most disturbing. It is almost enough to send me in search of more fairy tales to read. Perhaps some Brothers Grimm on the menu next?

 

Completed Beauty and Other Variations on La Belle et la Bête

Classic Children's Literature Event April 2017 250px

Beauty – Robin McKinley (U.S., 1978, reread)

Adaptations of La Belle et la Bête – Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (France, 1740):

  1. Marie Le Prince de Beaumont  (France, 1756), as published by James Lumsden and Son, Glasgow.
  2. Andrew Lang (Scotland, 1889)

Unless you’ve been living with your head firmly ensconced in sand (and given the craziness of the news, I wouldn’t discount the possibility), chances are you’ve noticed that Walt Disney Studios has a little film out just now that may just have earned a little bit of money in recent weeks and that is based on an old fairy tale…and that just happens to fit in well with Classic Children’s Literature Month. I can’t say for certain (my memory escapes me on the particulars), but it’s likely that one of the trailers for Beauty and the Beast prompted me to a return visit to a more contemporary written adaptation, Robin McKinley’s Beauty.* And that in turn has sent me down the rabbit hole–not only did I then (re?)visit some of the more traditional tellings, but I have on order from the library Beauty and the Beast Tales from Around the World (Heidi Anne Heiner), though since they have to purchase/process a copy first (apparently this is what they do instead of ILL?), it could be a while before I get to that one.

What I would really like to read (and thus the library hold) is a translation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 La Belle et la Bête. As far as I can tell, Villeneuve’s tale was the original story from which all of the other more familiar adaptations have sprung. That is, the original with the elements of a father promising a rose to his beloved daughter, getting lost in the woods and taking refuge in an enchanted castle where he is doomed to death by the beast for stealing a rose, the daughter willingly taking her father’s place and ultimately falling in love with the beast and ending his enchantment. (I believe there are other beauty + beast stories with different base elements–thus the “Tales from Around the World” part.) Since I was unsuccessful in finding an English translation of the Villeneuve, I settled temporarily for two adaptations, both of which are apparently both much shorter than Villeneuve’s and also the more commonly told. The first was by a Frenchwoman, Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. I couldn’t find a translator listed, but it is from the edition published by James Lumsden and Son in Glasgow. The second is by Andrew Lang, from his The Blue Fairy Book collection of fairy and folk tales.

Although both fairy tales, as well as McKinley’s novel-length adaptation are similar in their elements, they vary in the particulars. The fairy tales are most similar–naturally enough, for they share a common source. Beaumont’s version more emphatically pushes the moral however: virtue will be rewarded and selfishness punished. Here, Beauty’s sisters are proud and vain and selfish, while she is good and kind.  (There are also brothers, but they have very little personality as they are mostly just good sons and brothers.) Lang’s version, on the other hand–and perhaps here the more than 100 years between them makes a difference–has sisters who are nearly as insignificant as the brothers. The moral is not illustrated in them, but only in Beauty, who is rewarded for her own goodness and love. Notably, in none of these versions is it stated that the Beast under an enchantment due to his own moral failings, but rather entirely due to outside forces (in contrast to both Disney versions). (Actually, to be more accurate, I don’t think an explanation is given in Lang.)

In contrast with the fairy tales, McKinley’s adaptation much more greatly fleshes out both characters and plot. She has the advantage of greater length, for her story is a novelization of the fairy tale. But it also deviates some from the traditional stories. Instead of viewing Beauty with jealousy, her sisters are loving and kind in their own right–they truly do not wish to see her go and be sacrificed to the Beast. Nor are they the selfish, proud creatures of the fairy tale, but loyal to both their family and their lovers. Indeed, the middle sister, Hope, is distressed long before the loss of wealth, for her true love wishes to return to his hometown as a blacksmith and she is sorry that she might have to leave her family behind. But this lover is able to help the merchant and his family when they lose it all, thus showing how one tragedy may bring with it opportunity, and we see many scenes of happy family life, even after Beauty’s father has lost everything. I had worried that returning to a story I had so loved as a child might be a disappointment–that it could not live up to my memories–but thankfully, it was not so, and continued to enchant and delight me, far more so than the shorter versions.

I look forward to exploring other versions of these tales, and remain especially interested in Villeneuve’s. The short stories suffer in their shortness as compared to Beauty; will the longer original prove more satisfactory?

*Technically too new to be called “classic” just yet, I think, but older than I realized. Since it started me down the fairy-tale path, I decided to include it here anyway.