Day 1037: The Bloody Chamber

Cover for The Bloody ChamberBecause a few months ago there was some mini hooplah about The Bloody Chamber, I thought it was a recent book, but it turns out Angela Carter died in 1992. I was totally unaware of her unique work.

The Bloody Chamber is a series of fairy tales and legends, retold. In them, heroines strip away their passivity. Some of the tales are gruesome, and all of them feature blood.

“The Bloody Chamber” is the story of Bluebeard retold. The young bride sells herself for riches and is taken to a castle floating in the sea. Her husband tempts her to look in the forbidden room by his very act of forbidding it, and she finds a slaughterhouse. When he returns unexpectedly, her intrepid mother saves her life.

I won’t tell the ending of the others, but Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Beauty and the Beast are all featured. The prose is gorgeous, with startling images and strong feminist themes, and Carter has a fascination with wolves.

This book will probably not be for you if you are at all squeamish. I am not, and some of it was a bit much for me. Still, it is a quick read, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

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Day 907: Victorian Fairy Tales

Cover for Victorian Fairy TalesApparently, in Victorian times there was a fashion for fairy tales. Not only did some writers, especially of children’s books, concentrate on them, but many writers of other types of works wrote them as well. Although Victorian Fairy Tales is published as a scholarly work with notes and essays, the tales are well worth reading by anyone, and many of them are by well-known writers.

My favorite tale was “The Rose and the Ring,” by William Makepeace Thackeray. It is about a couple of usurping kings and the confusion that results when an enchanted ring and a rose that each make the wearer irresistible to the opposite sex are traded around among the characters. The story is very funny, with different types of humor to appeal to both adults and children, as well as silly names and repetition, which children love. The pictures by Thackeray from the original are wonderful.

“Prince Prigio” by Andrew Lang is another funny tale, about a prince who is so smart that he annoys everyone. Another outstanding tale is by E. Nesbit, “Melisande,” about a princess who is cursed by a wicked fairy to be bald. Her father gives her a wish, and as happens in fairy tales, she doesn’t wish wisely.

Other favorite stories are “The Queen Who Flew” by Ford Madox Ford and “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame. “The Reluctant Dragon” and “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde are the only stories in the volume I have read before, although I vaguely remember there being a copy of “The Little Lame Prince” by Dinah Mulock Craik around our house.

There is much to enjoy in this book, both for children and adults. I thought a couple of the stories were a bit ethereal and symbolic to be enjoyed much by children (or by me), but most of them were fun to read.

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Day 648: The Snow Queen

Cover for The Snow QueenAlthough The Snow Queen is marketed as Michael Cunningham’s reworking of the classic fairy tale, the novel actually alludes to it more than rewrites it. Tyler Meek gets an ice crystal in his eye as does the main character of the fairy tale, so we know he will not be able to see clearly. The Snow Queen herself is the drugs Tyler takes.

The novel begins with Tyler’s younger brother Barrett walking home through a snowstorm. He has just been dumped by his lover by means of an abrupt text and is wondering what he did wrong. In his mid-40’s, Barrett, although a Yale graduate who had a seemingly bright future before him, has been unable to settle to any one thing. He has lost his apartment and now lives with Tyler and his girlfriend Beth and works as a clerk in a store.

Barrett notices an odd light above him in the sky and feels that it is looking back at him. This experience seems so extraordinary to him that he half fears he imagined it and doesn’t at first tell anyone about it.

At home, Tyler awakes to find the room full of snow because he and Beth left the window open. Tyler, Beth, and Barrett live in an ugly apartment in a shabby neighborhood in New York City. Tyler’s dreams of being a musician have ended with him working as a bartender and being allowed to play a couple of nights a week.

Tyler is trying to write a song for Beth for their wedding. Beth has liver cancer, and she presently is getting no better or worse. Tyler obsesses with the song and with the impending 2004 re-election of George Bush rather than trying to get himself off drugs, as he promised Beth. Now, he has begun lying about the drugs.

For a few months, Beth gets better. Barrett attributes her recovery in some part to his exchange with the light and begins attending church. Tyler, who has been good at taking care of Beth, feels a bit like he has lost his purpose.

Cunningham has written an intimate portrait of the two brothers in his masterly style. He forces us to examine our notions about success and failure and insightfully depicts Tyler’s growing dependence on the drugs. However, the story about the brothers and their friends isn’t really compelling, and the female characters are deficient. Beth is a palely drawn angel, and the only other important female character, Liz, looks too much like her opposite. Other characters seem to be there just to populate the novel. After the stunning The Hours, I found The Snow Queen disappointing.

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Day 546: Boy, Snow, Bird

Cover to Boy, Snow, BirdI find it fascinating when someone takes a well-known story and puts a wildly creative spin on it. Such is the case with Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi’s re-imagining of the story of Snow White.

The story begins in the 1950’s with Boy Novak. Boy flees to a small town in New England to escape her verbally and physically abusive father. Although Boy is a strikingly beautiful icy blonde, she has no sense of herself, so much so that when she looks in a mirror, she sometimes cannot see herself.

Boy meets Arturo Whitman, a widower with a little girl named Snow. Although Boy believes she loves someone else, she marries Arturo. It is not until she has her own dark-skinned daughter, whom she names Bird at Snow’s suggestion, that she learns she has married into an African-American family passing for white.

Boy is appalled to learn that Arturo has a sister, Clara, whom she has never met. Arturo’s mother Olivia sent Clara away as a child because her features were too African-American.

Boy is also worried about Snow, a beauty who has always been fawned over by her family for her pale skin. Boy sees something hidden in Snow and begins to fear for Bird. Finally, she has Arturo send Snow away to live with Clara.

Bird takes up the story at the age of fourteen. She shares her mother’s problems with mirrors. She is a bright, lively girl who is intensely curious about her sister Snow. Soon she begins a correspondence with Snow. When Boy, Snow, and Bird are finally reunited and other secrets emerge, they are forced to explore the differences between appearance and reality.

The setting of this novel during the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement adds dimension to this truly original novel. It is also beautifully written. I felt it slowed down a little in the section where Snow and Bird are corresponding, but it was otherwise absorbing. Although the novel has a realistic setting, it harks back to its fairy tale beginning through dreams, a few hallucinatory moments, and the symbolism of the mirror.