Monthly Archives: June 2013

Philip Pullman – “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm”

I have a confession to make: as much as I love Disney, King Arthur, mythology in general, Narnia, Tolkien and fairy tales of all varieties, up until this past Christmas I had never actually read anything by the Brothers Grimm – at least, not the originals.  Adaptations, variations, inspirations, even vicious skewerings, sure, but not the actual tales themselves.  Shocking, I know, and utterly negligent on my part.

Therefore, I decided to rectify this oversight after we received copies of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, complete with signed bookplate.  In fact, I was compelled to add it to my own signed book collection.  Merry Christmas to me!

Pullman chose the fifty best tales (or at least, his favorite fifty) from the Grimm brothers for this collection.  A few of his selections are instantly recognizable, the classic favorites: Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty (under the title “Briar Rose”), Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin, to name a few.  The rest of the book is comprised of the lesser known tales in Grimm canon, among them “The Juniper Tree”, “Hans-my-Hedgehog”, “The Singing, Springing Lark”, and “The Nixie of the Millpond”, but no less satisfying for being brand-new (at least to me).

This is not just a translation, however; it is much more than that.  Pullman also includes a brief commentary at the end of each tale, along with a bibliography of other versions of that particular story, classification into Aarne-Thompson-Uther fairy tale “type”, and where the Grimm brothers originally obtained the tale.

In these commentaries, Pullman invites the reader into his imagination, sharing his own insights about the nature of each story and the various narrative devices at work.  At the same time, he steers clear of attempting to tease out any sort of “deeper meaning” hidden within the text.  There are plenty of books out there that fulfill that function, examining these tales through any and every lens you can imagine: Jungian archetypes, Freudian analysis, or whatever.  This is not one of them.  Instead, Pullman sets out to see how these tales work as stories, pure narrative, taken straight from the oral tradition, as they were originally told.

As a result, the commentaries are exactly that: the author’s musings and thoughts on each tale.  Sometimes this is a description of the different versions of each tale, and why he chose that particular version to retell here: for instance, following “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”, he speculates on how “sausage” may be the funniest word in the English language, and that the tone of the story might be very different were one to substitute “lamb chop” … or even “bratwurst”, despite both being able to fill the exact same narrative function within the story!

The introduction to the collection contextualizes the stories with a brief history of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their fairy tale compilations.  The brothers were not alone in collecting and publishing folk and fairy tales: it was a widespread phenomenon in Germany in the early 19th century.  Pullman also outlines the basic elements of a fairy tale: the traits that separate it from other types of literature, and why it appeals so broadly across so many different cultures.

Although we stock this volume on our “Young Adult” table, no one should dismiss it as a mere “kid’s book”, or a meaningless nostalgia kick.  Children would enjoy the stories, undoubtedly, especially  comparing them with more famous or Disneyfied versions of the same tales: I’ve always thought it made a lot more sense for pitch on the stairs to pull off one of Cinderella’s slippers, than to believe that she accidentally walked out of the magic shoes made specifically to fit her feet and no one else’s.  It takes an adult to really appreciate the beauty of Pullman’s translation, and the wit and wonder of his addendums.  There’s a reason why these stories have lasted so long, and achieved such universal fame.

And in addition to all that – they’re just plain fun.



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“The Rebel Wife” – Taylor Polites

I mentioned in an earlier post that I love historical fiction.  Although that particular comment was a jab at the Broadway musical Gypsy, it nevertheless remains true.  There’s something truly magical about taking established facts, and weaving a story around those facts,  beginning with what we know, and extrapolating from there all the tantalizing possibilities of what might have been.  It takes an incredibly skilled writer to make the past live again, to capture the essence of a time and a place long gone.

The Rebel Wife, by Taylor M. Polites, is the story of Augusta Branson, usually referred to as Gus, a woman who came of age during the Civil War, and now faces a personal crisis in the last days of Reconstruction.  Her scalawag husband has suddenly died of a mysterious and bloody illness, leaving her alone with a small son.  As confusing and terrifying as the manner of his death is, the aftermath is even more so.  Through her, Polites presents us with a devastating scenario: what do you do when everything you’ve ever thought to be true suddenly … isn’t?  Who can you trust, when your whole life has been a lie?

Although Gus is a wife and a mother in her late twenties, she is forced to grow up during the course of the novel.  Blindly obedient to those in authority, having done everything she was told, she is now forced to think and act for herself, something she has never before been required to do.  She slowly realizes that she has been lied to for most of her life, and by those who supposedly had only her best interests at heart.  Her husband’s money is missing, and there are many who would both use and deceive her to get their hands on it.  Adding to her pressures are the rising heat of an Alabama summer, racial and class tensions escalating with the coming end of Reconstruction, and the mysterious illness that killed her husband is spreading.  Polites successfully recreates the atmosphere of the mid-1870s, giving us a peek into the mind of a woman caught in an impossible situation.

Gus has spent her entire life as a cipher, a nonentity: a pawn to be moved at the will of others, mostly men.  Brother, uncle, cousin, suitor, husband – none of them have ever treated her as an autonomous being, but rather as a possession.  She herself was quite content to sleepwalk through life, following orders as needed, keeping face, doing what is expected of her.  Now with the death of her husband, all of her puppet-masters have begun to tug her in different directions, and she struggles with the conflicting expectations, eventually needed to shake them off and stand on her own two feet.  This is a powerful story, a belated coming-of-age, recognizing that age has nothing to do with adulthood.

The novel is told from Gus’ point of view, which distorts our perspective of her world in many ways – but then again, Gus’ own perspective is badly skewed, as a result of both her upbringing and her dependence on laudanum.  Enlightenment does not come all at once, but rather in fits and starts, clues suddenly falling into place until the full picture of her situation emerges.  She’s been so blind to the world around her, to the violence and terror hidden beside the genteel facade of her northern Alabama town, but now her eyes are open, and there is no turning back.  Her confusion is palpable, as the narrative swings from present to past and back again as Gus recollects the events that brought her to where she is today.

This is not the first time Gus’ world has come tumbling down – she has, after all, survived the Civil War, but she was a teenager when the war ended, and completely reliant on her elders.  Now those in power wish to restore the status quo antebellum, by any means necessary and woe betide anyone who stands in their way.  For all her blindness in many ways, Gus is one of the very few characters to realize that nothing can turn back the clock.  The world has changed, and she has changed with it – she can’t go back to being the girl she used to be.  Instead, she has to step forward into the future, and forge a new identity for herself, outside of everyone else’s expectations.


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“And the Mountains Echoed” – Khaled Hosseini

As I write this, we’re only a few days away from what will certainly be our biggest event of the year – An Evening With Khaled Hosseini, in the East Ballroom of the BJCC on June 16 at 8 pm – this is a slight change in location.  Yes, tickets are still available, and include a free signed first edition of his latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed, as well as free indoor parking.  As an additional treat, we’ve just found out that a few lucky attendees will also receive the privilege of a private, intimate reception with Khaled Hosseini beforehand.  We’ll hold a drawing for this amazing opportunity on Saturday at 10:00 am.  And I promise that this is the end of my shameless promotion … for this week, anyway.  On to the review!

I first read And the Mountains Echoed about two months ago, and since then I’ve been trying to figure out how to encapsulate this book, how to put my feelings for it into words.  The novel is so layered, so complex (as are the emotions it evokes), that I found it nearly impossible to extract its essence and boil my opinions down into a few brief paragraphs.  Not going to lie, writing this particular post has been something of a struggle – by far the most difficult review I’ve attempted to date.  I want to do justice to this incredible book, but frankly, it’s an intimidating prospect.  Saying too much would spoil everything; saying too little equally unfortunate.  I’ll do my best, but no matter what I say, I’ll be selling the book short.

Within the novel, there is no single plot, but rather several overlapping, interconnected and entwined narratives, told from many different perspectives.  The complexity is no small part of the book’s charm – just as nothing in real life is ever simple or easy, so too are the lives of these characters.  Each voice is unique, beautifully articulated and expressed.  There are so many viewpoints, so many stories, all intricately woven together.  We see each speaker through his or her own eyes, but also through those of the other narrators, creating something magical and multifaceted.  Every single character is far more than they seem, and gradually the layers are peeled away, revealing the flaws and intricacies of the human spirit.

Much of the story centers around a particular house in Kabul – it brings most, if not all, of the characters together.  It is the point where all stories overlap and intersect, connecting otherwise unrelated people, even if some individuals never see it, or even hear about it.  The plot doesn’t stay in Kabul, but wanders all over the world, from Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos and back again.  Altogether, the tangled threads of the plot weave together disparate events in time and space, covering nearly fifty years.  Relationships grow and change during this period, and occasionally end.  There is no “happily ever after”, no fairy tale endings.  Nothing is resolved neatly, or tidily.  In spite of everything that happens, however, characters still manage to find joy, and achieve contentment and happiness in their lives, even though nothing happens the way they ever expected it to.

There is tragedy here – my god, is there tragedy.  Some blatantly obvious, and some hidden in what the characters deliberately choose not to say.  But very few of the characters dwell on it, most of them instead choosing to move forward, rarely looking back.  Underlying everything that happens, under every twist and turn thrown by life is the constant theme of hope and perseverance.

Heartbreaking and heartwarming by turns (and often at the same time), this novel is blatantly, powerfully, beautifully real.  It is moving in a way I’ve rarely encountered before.  Nothing is simple, nothing black-and-white, only varying shades of gray.  At heart, really, it’s about family, both the one we are born with and the one we create.  There is love here, running through every relationship in the book, learning to love despite and because of the inherent flaws in every person, including ourselves.  And more than anything else, there is hope.


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Mike Reviews “A Delicate Truth” by John Le Carré

(Psst … just to shake thing’s up a bit, Mike’s writing the review this week!)

Spy novelist John Le Carré’s latest book, A Delicate Truth, is exquisitely narrated, in two time frames that slowly merge. It opens with a classic espionage set-piece, Operation Wildlife, a top-secret mission to the rock of Gibraltar, involving CIA, special forces, and a cast of spooks familiar to regular readers of the genre. The British government’s covert seizure of an arms-dealing Mr. Big is seen through the eyes of that stock-in-trade, the quintessential Englishman, a certain Paul Anderson. But Wildlife was “an utter cock-up” in which two innocent people, a Muslim mother and child, were killed.

Three years later (it’s now 2011), one of the soldiers involved reveals that the greater horror of the “cock-up” is the government conspiracy to cover it up, and bury the truth. “Paul Anderson” turns out to be a retired diplomat, Sir Kit Probyn. Together with Foreign Office high-flyer Toby Bell, this elderly and confused Englishman slowly comes to terms with the moral challenge presented by the Wildlife disaster. The stage seems set for a set-piece finale.

Le Carré, however, is never predictable, and always exploring new frontiers. A lesser writer might have fallen back on some literary tradecraft. Once the cat is out of the bag, the tempo and tone of A Delicate Truth becomes progressively relentless and angry. Le Carré picks over the cynicism of the secret state with a kind of cold fury. There’s a brilliant climax, with sinister deaths, casual torture, wrecked lives, and shameful compromises.

In the end, Anderson/Probyn and his dogged Foreign Office mole, Toby Bell, uncover the truth about the mess, but find themselves helplessly trapped in the larger conspiracy. The forces of covert coercion close in, with blaring sirens. If the bleak despair of Le Carré’s conclusion has warmth, it’s derived from the heat and velocity of its author’s rage.


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