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Top Ten Authors of Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, and Legends

This week, I’d like to introduce you to some of the best authors I’ve found who analyze or write fairy tales, folk tales, and legends. I’ve mentioned before how much I love this genre; my college classes on fairy tales, legends, and mythology had a great impact upon the way I read and think about stories. Think of this as primer to the genre, albeit a subjective one; I’m certain I’m forgetting some great writers, and I’m sure there are many I haven’t yet discovered.

Fairy tales, folk tales, and legends tell extraordinary stories that tap into the very real fears, anxieties, and emotions of everyday life. One of the best parts about reading the classic tales is comparing all of the variants. I felt like I knew so much more about the stories than people who have only heard the Grimms’ versions or (worse!) only seen Disney movies.

While contemporary tales are often more interesting because of their relevancy in my life, I’m glad to have that firm classical base, because now I can read contemporary fantasy/retellings and point to the different variations of classic stories, from popular new releases like The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas (my review here) and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (my review here) to older classics and lesser-known works like The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (my review here), The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and The Little Girl Who was Too Fond of Matches by Gaetan Soucy.

There are several authors you must read to get a good grounding in fairy tales, folk tales, and legends.

10. Peter Sís
In The Conference of the Birds (my review here), his illustrated version of the twelfth-century epic Sufi poem, Peter Sís introduces readers to an ancient, mystical story in a lyrical but beautifully simple way. It adds gorgeous detail in an imaginative way without distracting from the original story. This is a perfect example of a modern retelling of a legend.

9. Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is one of the undisputed masters of modern fairy tales, from children’s books like Coraline (my review) and The Graveyard Book (my review) that are enjoyable at any age to books like American Gods (Jack’s review) and the Sandman trilogy that are more grown up but no less magical.

8. Susan Redington Bobby
I can’t write about fairy tales without mentioning Susan Bobby, author of Fairy Tales Reimagined and professor of my Fairy Tales class, who introduced me to many of the authors on this list. Bobby is passionate about the subject with a particular emphasis on modern retellings of classic tales. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, and I’m thrilled that she’s edited this collection of essays. (Prof. Bobby also reviewed Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay here!)

7. Jack Zipes
Zipes’s Don’t Bet on the Prince, a collection of contemporary feminist fairy tales and essays in North America and England, is an excellent introduction both to fairy tales in general and to feminist literary criticism in particular. It manages to be serious and informative without being boring.

6. A.S. Byatt
A.S. Byatt–author of Possession, The Virgin in the Garden, and Angels & Insects, among others–is a master at retelling (or, more often, inventing) modern fairy tales. Her books The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and the Little Black Book of Stories need to be added to your reading list right now.

5. Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has authored more than forty books, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake. Your life isn’t complete until you’ve read something by Margaret Atwood. (I would know–there are so many titles I haven’t read yet that I want desperately to get to!)

4. Kate Bernheimer
Kate Bernheimer is an expert on writing and analyzing fairy tales, with the collections of essays Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me as well as the fiction series The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, Merry Gold, and Lucy Gold under her belt.

3. Maria Tatar
Maria Tatar is editor of The Classic Fairy Tales, the book that built my knowledge of classic fairy tales. It made me look at variants across tales–stories across languages and cultures that are surprisingly similar–so that I could then see the underpinnings of these tales in countless works of fiction produced today. If you’re interested in fairy tale criticism, this book is a must.

2. Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton’s poetry deals heavily in fairy tale retellings, drawing upon raw subjects like child abuse and neglect. One poem, “The Abortion,” has always stood out in my memory, especially this line: “I met a little man, / not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all… / he took the fullness that love began.” Sexton published an entire volume of fairy tale retellings, Transformations, that contains sometimes difficult but always powerful themes.

1. Emma Donoghue
One of the best authors I discovered in school was Emma Donoghue. I wrote a paper on “The Tale of the Voice,” a feminist retelling contained in Donoghue’s marvelous book Kissing the Witch. And it won’t surprise my longtime readers to hear that Donoghue’s Room (my review here) is one of the best books I’ve ever read!

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

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Top Ten Tough Topics Tackled in Literature

This week, I’m highlighting some of my favorite works of fiction that address ten difficult social, cultural, and emotional issues. I’m sure I could think of many more books if I tried–”tough topics” are kind of my thing.

10. Bullying
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is an excellent story about one girl who has the chance to change her life–in seven days. Oliver manages to take a self-centered bully and make her a completely sympathetic character by the end.

And I’ve mentioned before how much I love Daphne’s Book by Mary Downing Hahn; Hahn’s story of two girls forming an unlikely friendship is timeless.

9. Autism
Two books about autistic boys, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, take very unique views of what an autistic child’s world looks like, and both are very convincing in their own ways. Not much is known about autism, but these books are a reminder that “developmental” issues and genius are relative.

8. September 11, 2001
I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer in college, and it has stuck with me through the years. Oskar is an intrepid and smart narrator, and his efforts to cope with the loss of his father in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center are heartwarming and inspiring–and a tearjerker.

7. Poverty
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls manages to recount her rough childhood while avoiding any trace of self-pity. This book is a little dark at times, but I highly recommend it.

6. Aging
Anne Tyler effortlessly captures the minor details of a person that accumulate into who he or she is in her novels, and she does not fail me in Noah’s Compass. Liam, the main character, is confronted with an inevitable slide into old age, but the way he deals with it is charming and humorous.

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is, of course, a classic tale of aging. The old man faces his greatest challenge, and summons the courage to triumph over it despite his acknowledged weaknesses.

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis is a rather unconventional entry for this category, but I found the book’s reverse-chronological order a fascinating study of memory and one man’s backward look on his life.

5. Racism
Often contested for its handling of race and slavery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a humorous and satirical take on pre-Civil War society along the Mississippi River.

For a more modern exploration of African-American identity, struggles with racism, and the fight for civil rights, W. Ralph Eubanks’s Ever Is a Long Time is a fascinating read.

4. Addiction
I also mentioned recently that Go Ask Alice is one of my favorite books for its raw and unrelenting take on the rebellious life of a girl in the 1960s. It was recommended to a friend of mine going through rehab, and I can see why; the narrator’s battle with addiction feels very real in this fictionalized diary.

Addiction is just one of many serious topics to which Andre Dubus III turns his artistic genius in The House of Sand and Fog. Kathy, one of the main characters, finds herself returning to the addiction from which she had recently emerged when everything in her life seems to crumble. Yet Kathy inspires a great deal of empathy and even respect from her readers–a difficult but praiseworthy feat by Dubus.

3. Abduction
As abductions of young women sweep headlines–Jaycee Dugard‘s story is one of many in the past few years–I think we all crave insight into why such tragedies happen and how victims can survive them. And Emma Donoghue certainly delivers in Room, one of my favorite books ever.

But even fifteen years ago, I was fascinated with abduction stories. Caroline B. Cooney’s smart and courageous main character in The Face on the Milk Carton made a strong impression on me as a young reader–whenever I was scared that I, too, would be swept up by strangers (hey, I was only 11!), I just remembered how cool and level-headed Janie managed to be.

2. Rape
Push by Sapphire may now be considered a classic story of rape and incest. Sapphire handles these topics very well, pushing the reader right to the edge with graphic images and then pulling him or her back with Precious’s admirable determination and optimistic outlook.

Another book about the devastating effects of rape that left a strong impression on me is We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s prose meanders at times–I remember sighing in frustration as she spends an entire chapter chronicling the contents of the family’s cluttered hall–but her attention to detail pays off as she describes that family’s hurt and rage at the violence that struck once and left an indelible mark.

1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
There are several books about war and PTSD that immediately come to mind when I think about masterful attempts to address difficult subjects. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller are, of course, classics in this field. But more recently, War by Sebastian Junger and The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli have also proved to be stunning and delicate glimpses of the lasting effects of conflict.

What about you–what books do you think have handled difficult issues well?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

Top Ten Authors I Would Love to Meet

This week, I’m highlighting the top ten authors (living or dead) I would love to meet. (The original list was “authors I would DIE to meet,” but that sounded a little extreme to me; I’m a book nerd, but I couldn’t think of a single author that I’d die to meet. Does this mean I need to quit reviewing?)

10. Neil Gaiman
I loved Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book, and soon I’ll read American Gods as well. And just in time, too; rumor has it that, after the runaway success of “A Game of Thrones,” HBO will be making a series based on American Gods. Plus, I think he’d be really interesting to meet; my sister says he’s the best thing to happen to Minnesota, and she would know.

9. Emma Donoghue
OK, so this is kind of cheating; I’ve already met Emma Donoghue once. But I’d love to meet her again! (I’m compensating by putting her lower on the list than she deserves.) In case you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, Emma Donoghue is one of my favorite authors, and she is, in my humble opinion, one of the best female writers alive. Too-high praise? Read Room.

8. Miranda July
July’s collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, blew me away in 2009, and I think I’m ready for a reread. She is bitingly funny and insightful, and I’d love to see her perform sometime.

7. George R.R. Martin
Whenever I laugh out loud at Tyrion‘s antics, I always wonder: Is George Martin actually funny in person? Or is he one of those geeks who can only express himself on paper? I can’t decide which I’d like better.

6. Tina Fey
Speaking of laugh-out-loud humor, I just finished Tina Fey’s Bossypants on audiobook. I think it’s safe to say I have a new idol. Fey had clearly worked hard to get what she has, in a world notorious for being a boys club.

5. Charles Dickens
I spent 14 months reading and writing about Dickens, and the rest of my life regretting/boasting about it. I deserve to be wooed by his infamous charm and charisma, damn it!

4. Cormac McCarthy
I wonder if Cormac McCarthy speaks with punctuation.

3. Jack Kerouac
I read On the Road when I was 21, and it changed me–more, perhaps, than any other work of literature. It impacted the way I saw life, the way I formed relationships, and the way I wrote. Though a little of the shine has worn off my infatuation with Kerouac (I mean, seriously, has anyone ever finished Desolation Angels?), he is still a man I would LOVE to meet.

2. William Shakespeare
This one should be obvious. I’m not even that much of a Shakespeare nerd, but I can’t imagine having a carte-blanche opportunity to meet any writer and not choosing ol’ Bill!

1. Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is the author whom I admire the most. I would say he’s what I aspire to be, but that wouldn’t end well. (Too soon?) He has written some of my favorite books of all time, such as The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea. It’s a good thing he had his obvious flaws, or I would be a drooling fangirl at the mere mention of his name.

What about you–who are your favorite authors?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

Top Ten Rebels in Literature

This week, I’m highlighting our top ten rebels in literature. This one was pretty tough for me, and I’m sure I’ll think of brilliant examples tomorrow. Please weigh in below!

10. Tom Sawyer
Tom is the original bad boy who is still able to charm his way into old ladies’ hearts. His ability to persuade everyone to play along with his cockamamie schemes makes him an unforgettable rebel.

9. Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie has written one fantasy trilogy and two similar stand-alone novels. His books often feature stock fantasy characters, but they are anything but ordinary; Abercrombie turns stereotypes on their heads to great effect. His stories are entertaining, suspenseful, and very accessible, especially to fantasy newbs.

8. Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s signature writing style is rebellious in an anti-punctuation kind of way. I mean, really, who needs quotation marks? I’m told it’s really just a James Joyce thing, but I haven’t read enough Joyce to call him a rebel.

7. Jack Kerouac
Who suddenly packs up everything he owns in a dilapidated old car to drive cross-country with a few druggie friends in the 1940s? Dean Moriarty, of course. And Jack Kerouac, who records the whole adventure in one long scroll while on a bender.

6. Emma Donoghue
With bright red hair and a perky Irish accent, Emma Donoghue may not seem like much of a rebel. But her feminist retellings of fairy tales–both in her collection of interlaced short stories and sprinkled more subtly throughout her other novels–have breathed spunky new life into the genre.

5. Holden Caulfield
Holden Caulfield is the classic American teen rebel in literature. He smokes, he curses, he even wanders around after curfew in search of girls. (In fact, he should probably be higher on this list, but I’m a rebel too.) I wonder if J.D. Salinger knew that he was forming a mold for the entire genre of American Bildungsroman when he created Holden.

4. Rorschach
Superheroes are usually very different from other characters, but rarely have they been rebellious. Often they just stop at saving the day and garnering fame. Rorschach is a bit different. His world is as black and white as his shifting mask; he rejects the rules of society and refuses to compromise on any issue–which sometimes makes him seems like kind of a jerk. Watchmen is a fascinating and groundbreaking novel, and Alan Moore is really just a genius.

3. Tyrion Lannister
Tyrion is arguably the main character of famed fantasy author George R.R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, recently made more popular by the HBO adaptation “Game of Thrones.” Tyrion is wily, smart, endearing, off-putting, and deeply human. His penchant for witty comments and a surprising self-sufficiency are overshadowed only by his love for wine and women, but a more nuanced literary character I have yet to find.

2. Lisbeth Salander
Lisbeth Salander is kickass. She’s a phenomenal heroine who could care less about societal conventions, which means she breaks literary conventions as well. She is intriguing and sharp, in both mind and speech; in creating Salander, Stieg Larsson single-handedly revolutionized female protagonists.

1. Jesus
He ran away from home at the age of 12 to tell the smartest rabbis he could find how wrong they are. He was known to go on a rampage at the sight of a temple-marketplace, he walked on water when everyone else rowed around like idiots, and he turned water into wine at all of his parties. I mean, this dude didn’t even bother to be born like anyone else! If only Jesus hadn’t listened to his dad about that whole crucifixion thing.

What about you–who are your favorite literary rebels?

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

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?

November in Review

And now, for the winner of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry… Sarah. Congratulations!

Thanks to everyone who left comments and retweeted the giveaway as well as all of the new subscribers and daily visitors. You guys are great!

This month, I participated in the Thankfully Reading weekend challenge. I never need a challenge to read—all I need is the time!—but it’s always nice to feel the sense of community among online reviewers that challenges emphasize. A special thanks goes to the creators and organizers!

Now to my stats:
5 books completed
1,137 pages read
5 books reviewed

This was an odd month for me, as you can probably tell by my low reading statistics. I tried to review books about writing and publishing in honor of NaNoWriMo, but I found that life gets in the way of the best-laid plans (as I should have guessed!).

November was filled with many joys, including all of the friends and family members I was able to visit. We went to Punkin Chunkin early in the month, I celebrated my birthday (the quarter-century!) on the 20th, and Thanksgiving went off without a hitch. I also began a new job, which has been very exciting.

But I also experienced a deep personal tragedy. My brother-in-law, Josh Weiss, was the victim of a fatal hit-and-run on November 7. He and my oldest sister, Chelsea, and their kids were moving to Minnesota, and the accident happened on the night of their going-away party.

I was visiting home for the weekend, and I feel very blessed that I was able to take Josh, Chelsea, and other loved ones out for breakfast. The last words I said to him were something to the effect of “I’ll miss you and I love you,” as I hugged him; I think I will always be grateful for that.

The support of my family and friends has been absolutely overwhelming. I truly appreciate everything they have done for me and for Josh’s memory. I have honestly never felt so loved and appreciated.

Going back to my “normal” life has been difficult, and I still feel intense grief at times. However, I’m glad to have the opportunity to express myself creatively and to continue kicking ass and taking names, so just watch out for me in December!

Here are the books I reviewed this month:

The conversational tone and infectious humor of the prose made this book thoroughly engaging. The layout breaks up otherwise information-dense text; it is peppered with the seasoned advice of booksellers, publishers, authors, publicists, editors… anyone involved with creating and selling books. The authors show that though writing a book is not easy, it can be incredibly rewarding.
Rating: 4 out of 5

In this “biography” of an iconic D.C. neighborhood, Blair Ruble explores the significance of cultural institutions and historical events. The author is not a trained historian, but his research is impeccable; he brings to light dozens of unpublished theses on the neighborhood. At the same time, I found this account very readable and entertaining.
Rating: 4 out of 5

This book is original, thrilling, captivating, and heartwrenching. At the same time, it is unexpectedly fresh and optimistic, filled with life and hope and wonder. 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.
Rating: 5 out of 5

Zeitoun is an eye-opening account of the devastating effects of two very different disasters in the United States: As Hurricane Katrina wreaks havoc on neighborhoods and lives in New Orleans, religious intolerance toward Muslims becomes more pointed in this post-9/11 world. The Zeitouns’ fascinating story of survival in the face of loss and discrimination makes both catastrophes undeniably real to the reader.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The contents of the No Plot? No Problem! novel-writing kit are snarky and fun if you need a pick-me-up, but you shouldn’t expect any life-changing advice. Baty attempts to prepare you for a month-long writing endeavor with equal parts humor and advice, but the whole thing feels corny. In my opinion, it’s better to leave the support and advice to the thousands of NaNoWriMo-ers who are churning out word counts alongside you.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

“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.