Tag Archives: fairy tale themes

My Mailbox: Zelda Fitzgerald, Emma Donoghue, and Meg Wolitzer

I received some good books in the mail this week, two of which I ordered online and one of which comes from a good friend. I also made an unsupervised trip to the library in my new car this weekend, and I came back with only two books! Jack was so proud.

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
I enjoyed Tender Is the Night by Zelda’s husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I found myself yearning for a complementary view—for the wife’s side of the story. I was delighted to find that such a story may exist in Zelda’s account of her mental breakdown and, more generally, her marriage. I’m looking forward to this one.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
I’ve wanted to read this book for a while. I hesitated to get it from the library, because I doubted that I could finish it in two weeks, so when a friend offered to send me her copy I jumped at the chance. I’m hoping to listen to it on audiobook as well so that I don’t have to lug the book around with me.

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
I read this collection of reimagined fairytales in my undergraduate Fairy Tales class—God, I loved being an English major—and when I discussed fairy-tale themes in Donoghue’s newest book, Room, I decided that I could no longer live without a copy of the book that made me a huge Donoghue fan girl. I’m hoping to re-read this one soon.

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
I’ve never read anything by Wolitzer before, so I hope I’m pleasantly surprised. I checked out both the hardcover and the audiobook, so I’m hoping to finish it pretty quickly.

The Spice Islands Voyage by Timothy Severin
This book is subtitled “The quest for Alfred Wallace, the man who shared Darwin’s discovery of evolution.” I’m not entirely sold on it—it sounds like it may not really be my kind of book—but I’ve heard good things about it, so who knows. I’m trying to read about Indonesia as much as possible before my trip there in a few weeks!

So, what books did you get this week?

Top 5 Books of 2010

2010 has been a good year in reading for me. I’ve begun taking my book reviews more seriously, and I’m reading and writing more often than ever before.

One of the reasons I began this blog is to keep track of what I’ve read and what I thought about each book. Many of my friends ask me what I’m reading or what I would recommend, and this is a great outlet for me to make recommendations—I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say nearly as much as I enjoy saying it!

Though I’ve read and reviewed many good books this year, there are several that stood out for me, so I’ve decided to compile a list of my top five books of 2010—enjoy!

5. Lost and Found
This was the first book I read by Carolyn Parkhurst, and I’ve since become a total fangirl. Parkhurst creates compelling stories that easily bring me into the characters’ world, and she has become one of my favorite authors. Lost and Found has been dismissed (unfairly, I think) as casual chick-lit. But I connected with all of the characters, even if I disliked them, and Parkhurst does an amazing job of conveying emotion through her prose while still abiding by my number-one rule of writing: show, don’t tell.

4. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Though my initial gushings about this book have been tempered somewhat by my lukewarm reaction to Mengestu’s follow-up, How to Read the Air, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. I loved the prominence of D.C. in the story, and I also loved how it was in turns a uniquely African, American, and Washingtonian story. Mengestu (a fellow alum of Georgetown—Go Hoyas!!!) is a talented writer, and I hope to enjoy more from him as he evolves as a storyteller.

3. All the Pretty Horses
I LOVE Cormac McCarthy. The Road was my favorite book in 2008, and I was worried that All the Pretty Horses—described as a more “romantic” book—would disappoint. I shouldn’t have worried! I loved the cadences of McCarthy’s prose as it circumscribed his characters and their world. Even though the genre of western is nothing new to me, I felt completely transported to an entirely new world. I can’t wait to finish the trilogy!

2. The Hobbit
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Hobbit. Though many trusted friends assured me that it was one of their favorite books, I thought it would be too fantastical to connect with, or too childish to truly impress me. Boy, was I wrong! And stupid to wait so long. Tolkien is a master of his art, and his Lord of the Rings trilogy now tempts me every time I look at my bookshelf!

1. Room
I can’t say enough good things about this book. I think Emma Donoghue is an amazing storyteller who is able to build suspense and empathy simultaneously. She manages to tell this story entirely through the eyes of a five-year-old boy, and very rarely does it ever feel false. As I’m sure you already know, I love her use of fairy tales and folktales to make the story feel familiar, even as her subject matter veers into territory few have entered. I recommend this book to everyone; though it can be dark, it can also be warm and optimistic.

What were your favorite books of the year?

“Coraline” by Neil Gaiman

Title: Coraline
Author: Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Dave McKean
ISBN: 9780380807345
Pages: 192
Release date: August 2003
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Children’s fiction; fantasy
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary

Coraline is a curious young girl who spends her days exploring her new house and meeting all of its quirky tenants. She discovers a door leading to another world that is nearly identical to her own, except her other mother pays her much more attention and her other father doesn’t insist on preparing fancy meals that Coraline detests.

At first, life seems good on the other side of the door, but Coraline soon finds that not all is as it appears.

Her other parents and other neighbors have black buttons for eyes, and Coraline’s other mother wants to sew a pair on Coraline so that she will never leave her. When the girl refuses, her parents go missing. Coraline immediately suspects her overly affectionate other mother, and she must outfox her, and all of the other residents, in time to save her real parents and herself.

Along the way, Coraline meets three other children, once like herself but now mere ghosts of souls hidden in a closet behind the mirror. Their eerie warnings of the other mother’s wiles echo in Coraline’s ears:

“She’ll take you life and all you are and all you care’st for, and she will leave you nothing but mist and fog. She’ll take your joy. And one day you’ll awake and your heart and soul will be gone. A husk you’ll be, a wisp you’ll be, and a thing no more than a dream on waking, or a memory of something forgotten.”

Indeed, the entire world outside of the house the other mother has constructed is mist and fog, empty and hollow. Coraline must figure out a way to outsmart her cunning other mother and escape this strange world.

Analysis

Coraline envelops you in the mystery and magic of a resourceful and imaginative child’s world.

It is an excellent modern-day fairy tale that incorporates countless elements of folklore and fantasy, from the idea of a disobedient child fighting for the affection of her parents to the existence of other worlds through ordinary-looking doors and mirrors.

But it also has specific elements that are clear nods to classic stories, such as the cannibalistic mother who has “a white hand with crimson fingernails”; cannibalism is a major theme in tales such as Hansel and Gretel, and white and red are very common colors in fairy tales such as Snow White. And you know how much I love fairy tales!

Coraline is accompanied in her quest by a cat vaguely reminiscent of the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. The cat, like many of its breed, is slippery and sarcastic. Coraline finds it nearly impossible to get a straight answer from him:

“Please. What’s your name?” Coraline asked the cat. “Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
The cat yawned slowly, carefully, revealing a mouth and tongue of astounding pinkness. “Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now, you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Gaiman’s protagonist is not the scared, stereotypical child you might expect, though. She is smart and tough, with unconventional wisdom and wiles. Her feline companion, too, has many quotable lines, such as in the scene where Coraline upbraids him for playing with a rat before he eats it:

“There are those,” it said with a sigh, in tones as smooth as oiled silk, “who have suggested that the tendency of a cat to play with its prey is a merciful one—after all, it permits the occasional funny little running snack to escape, from time to time. How often does your dinner get to escape?”

This passage entertains but also foreshadows; the cat is obviously talking about Coraline’s other mother here.

Such prose seems written to read aloud, with each word savored. There is an animated film, which I saw when it first came out. However, like most book nerds I’m a big proponent of reading over watching stories; if you do want to see the movie, I recommend at least reading the book first.

After all, it’s a quick, amusing read; I only wanted it to be longer!

“Room” by Emma Donoghue

Title: Room
Author: Emma Donoghue
ISBN: 9780316098335
Pages: 336
Release date: September 2010
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Literary fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Millie’s personal collection
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summary

Jack’s world is 11 feet square, and growing smaller every day. When he was four, he could race the shape of a C from one wall, around the bed, to the other wall, in 18 steps, but now that he’s five he can do it in only 16 steps!

The small room has never felt confining to Jack like it does to Ma; he’s always had new things to learn, and he doesn’t get tired of reading the same books every day like Ma does. But as he grows older, his curiosity keeps pace. What is that black thing that fell on Skylight? Ma says it’s a leaf, fallen from a tree; Jack had thought trees were TV, not real. And why does the air smell different when the big metal Door beeps and Old Nick comes into the room at night? Ma says it smells like cut grass in the summer, and she says one day they will open Door themselves to see the real grass, though Jack finds the idea of leaving Room even harder to believe than the existence of trees and grass.

Jack absorbs the things Ma begins to tell him slowly. His world had seemed absolute and unchanging; Jack and Ma are the only residents of Room, and the only real people in Jack’s world. They don’t count Old Nick, who only comes to Room at night to see Ma; Jack’s not sure he’s real, anyway, since Ma won’t let him get close.

But his trust in Ma in unwavering, and though he can’t imagine a world outside of Room, Jack begins to believe her stories about her childhood and the day she was abducted by Old Nick. He says, “Before I didn’t even know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it. When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”

It’s difficult to say any more without spoiling the suspense. But I probably don’t need to–the story will quickly envelop you and you will become intensely invested in Jack’s and Ma’s story.

Analysis

I loved this book. It is by far the best book I’ve read all year.

A few years ago, I took a class on fairy tales and developed a keen fascination with myths, folk tales, and legends. I was particularly interested in reimagined tales; Anne Sexton and Margaret Atwood thrilled me with their modern retellings of classic stories. For my final paper, I chose to contrast two versions of “The Little Mermaid”: Disney’s animated film, and a short story, “The Tale of the Voice,” by an unknown (to me) Irish author, Emma Donoghue.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when Donoghue was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The literary world was abuzz, suddenly, with one word: Room. I knew I had to read it from all of the glowing recommendations it was getting, but when I discovered that this Donoghue was the same feminist storyteller I’d so admired as an undergrad, I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough.

But even if I hadn’t heard anything about the book, I still would’ve devoured it as quickly as I did—it took less than two days. Don’t even try to read this book before bed—not because it is so scary, but because you will be up half the night thinking about Jack and Ma until you give up and spend the other half finishing their story.

The book is original, thrilling, captivating, and heartwrenching. At the same time, it is unexpectedly fresh and optimistic, filled with life and hope and wonder. The normal traits of a five-year-old child—curiosity, restlessness, friendliness—are all amplified by Jack’s isolation. But so is the bond between him and his mother.

Despite Ma’s frustrations at the limitations to raising Jack—the constant need to ration clothes and food, make sure he gets enough exercise in the tiny space, and stay sane in the face of the child’s unending energy and curiosity—the love that she and Jack share shows the incomparable connection between parent and child, and attests to the power of such a bond to make even the worst situation bearable.

When Ma explains to Jack that there are bad people in the world like their captor, she tells him, “But the tricky thing is, there’s far more people in the middle . . . Somewhere between good and bad,” she says. “Bits of both stuck together.”

A few reviews that I read complained that the book would have been better if we could experience more from Ma’s point of view. I disagree wholly. If the story were through Ma’s eyes, it would have been far too disturbing. But seeing her story through Jack’s loving and playful point of view mitigates the pain and desperation of her situation.

I was pleased, too, to see that Donoghue seamlessly weaves elements of classic fairy tales into the story—aside from references to Jack and the Beanstalk, she also gives me another reworking of “The Little Mermaid”! By incorporating elements common to fairy tales—such as the relationship between parent and child; themes of imprisonment; ogres (such as Old Nick); and the wonder of an unknown world—Donoghue has written a story that is at once haunting and uplifting, fresh yet familiar.

This is the kind of book you race through, bursting with the characters’ contagious anguish and passion, but when you reach the end you instantly regret your haste. But then you have the pleasure of flipping back through the pages and relishing once again Donoghue’s masterful storytelling ability.