Saturday, 30 May 2009

Prince Ivan by Peter Morwood

Another for the Once Upon a Time III Challenge. At the start I was a little uncomfortable with the writing style of this retelling of one of the best-known Russian fairytales, the story of Prince Ivan and Marya Morevna. The first chapters tell of the wooing of Ivan's three sisters by three powerful sorcerors, and the story jumps about rather in time in an endeavour to give as much background as possible. This isn't entirely successful, and creates a rather chaotic feeling but, once the tale settles down, at the beginning of Chapter Four, to describe the Tsarevitch's journey to visit his newly-married sisters, it begins to hang together rather better, because what Ivan has always wanted is to go on a quest.

In many ways it would be hard to go wrong, this is such a good story. The author - who has written several fantasy novels which revolve around some very Asian-feeling horse clans - has opted for a simple re-telling. No updating to a modern setting or looking for a modern slant, the author has chosen to give us a tale set in a medieval Russia full of the tensions between the new Christian god and the ancient and magical traditions of the Russians, Tatars and Cossacks. Admittedly, this is a world were sorcerors are taken for granted, but it's recognisably that fairytale past that we are all familiar with.

Ivan's brothers-in-law are all determined that he will marry the sorceress Marya Morevna, and send him off to meet her. Educated by a father who had hoped for a son, she is a daunting woman, commander of her own armies and fearless against her foes. Ivan is instantly smitten. At which point everyone ought to live happily ever after, but Ivan discovers that Marya has a dark secret, in the form of a sorceror chained up in her dungeon. Soon they are both caught up in a deadly fight with Koshchey the Undying, and Ivan finds himself setting out on his quest in earnest.

The story really comes into its own with the most dangerous part of Ivan's journey, to the country of the terrifying witch Baba Yaga, and from there to the end I was held spellbound. There are at two sequels to Prince Ivan, Firebird and The Golden Horde, and I find I'm looking forward to both of them.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Musing Mondays

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about gift certificates…

Do you give gift certificates to book stores as presents? If so, do you give for actual stores or online stores? Do you like to receive them yourself?

I prefer to give book tokens as presents rather than books, as a rule, because I find it hard to choose for other people. There are exceptions - mostly family - where I know that a new book by a favourite author will be pounced on with delight, but a book token is almost like two gifts for a book addict, because you are giving the pleasure of choosing, as well as the book itself. I mainly pick either book tokens which can be exchanged in any bookshop or Amazon certificates for people who shop a lot online, but recently I've chosen Persephone tokens for some family members.

And yes, of course I love to receive them!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Killing two birds with one stone...

That seems an apposite description for this post, a contribution to my reading for two challenges, Once Upon a Time III and the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Entitled Once Upon a Time: Myth, Fairy Tales and Legends in Margaret Atwood’s Writings and edited by Sarah A. Appleton, this book rather fell into my lap; a collection of articles by notable Atwood scholars, all except one of whom work outside Canada, it considers a range of her work, with the first four chapters of the nine focusing on Oryx and Crake and The Penelopiad.

In the first chapter I immediately found myself remembering why I gave up the pursuit of literary criticism. The collection’s editor, Sarah Appleton, takes a psychoanalytic position and suggests that the characters of Oryx and Crake are aspects of the protagonist himself, id and superego; furthermore, the events of the novel take place not in the real (future) world but in a dreamworld in which Jimmy seeks to reintegrate these aspects of his psyche in order to be able to face reality. Since Jungian psychology was the first to really inform the interpretation of myth and fairytale, I can hardly be completely hostile to this view of the novel, but I think it is only one level on which it can be read, albeit one which might throw light on some of its complexity. Happily, the next chapter, by Carol Osborne, does indeed deal with Oryx and Crake as a straightforwardly dystopian novel, and examines the ways in which Jimmy calls upon the remnants of his own culture to create a mythology for the Crakers (although one based, a later chapter points out, on lies and half-truths).

Turning to The Penelopiad, Shannon Hengen considers how the staging of Atwood’s work creates an experience for the audience appropriate to the story’s origins in pre-literary cultures yet, in so doing, still comments upon our contemporary world:

Paradoxically, in fashioning anew tales from ancient Greece, Atwood’s imagination captures contemporary Canada…in a most visceral and immediate way.
This is followed, in similar vein, by a chapter by Coral Ann Howells (editor of the Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood), on the same work. She quotes Atwood on myth:
Strong myths never die. Sometimes they die down, but they don’t die out. They double back in the dark, they re-embody themselves, they change costumes, they change key. They speak in new languages, they take on other meanings.
(That quotation seems to sum up what I’ve seen over and over again in reviews in the Once Upon a Time Challenges – the readiness with which myths take on these new forms. It’s interesting that Atwood personifies them, accepts that they have a life of their own.) Howells goes on to point out how frequently the same voices are heard in Atwood’s writing, with characters and aspects of characters re-appearing in different guises.

I found Chapter Five a little confusing, but that may be because I haven’t read The Blind Assassin. The multi-layered nature of that work apparently creates paradoxes and ambiguities which may leave the reader baffled. I’ll read the chapter again once I’ve read the book.

The next two chapters deal more explicitly with non-classical myth, and were of particular interest to me. The first, by Karen Stein, deals with time in Life Before Man, and consider the way in which the action takes place through two annual cycles, harvest-time to harvest-time, through real and what Mircea Eliade calls sacred time. These cycles are paralleled by the preoccupation of the main characters with a specific time cycle – Lesje, working in the fossil department of the ROM is concerned with paleo-historic time; Elizabeth, visits the planetarium and hence is connected with astronomical time; while Nate, with his interest in politics, is the only one intensely concerned with the present (but he dreams of timeless tropical islands). Stein finds in the cyclical nature of the narrative an indicator of hope and change, in a novel that other critics have characterised as “boring” (I liked it).

The only male contributor to the collection deals, appropriately, with princes, or the lack of them. If Atwood’s female characters are fairytale heroines (and villains) – and Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White, amongst others, put in appearances – then the men must surely contribute the odd princely quality? Of course, Atwood doesn’t obviously write that sort of men – how many times have you seen one of her men come up in a “Who is your favourite literary hero” answer? Theodore F. Sheckels categorises her men into five appropriately Jungian types: dark princes, shadowy princes, comic princes, sad princes and unfinished princes, giving examples of each type, all pretty unsatisfactory as princes go. I realised, reading this chapter that I don’t like any of Atwood’s male characters that I can think of, and then I realised that I don’t much like any of the women, either, but they are interesting.

In Chapter Nine Kathryn VanSpanckeren looks at the way in which Atwood recreates and mythologises the story of her ancestor Mary Webster in the poem “Half-Hanged Mary”. She describes Atwood’s method as being similar to Jung’s dream-work, building and expanding her subject through a process of accretion of images and suggestions. She examines successive drafts of the poem, comparing them to the final published version and considering how omissions and additions contribute to the work. This was interesting both for its insights into the construction of a poem (something I have always found intriguing) and the myth-making process, which we see not only in the hands of writers like Atwood, but at work - sometimes with alarming success - in the everyday press, in its creation of celebrity but also in its instigation of witch-hunts.

At the beginning of this book I was concerned that it might be too concerned with classical mythology, and might not greatly illuminate the role of fairytale in Atwood’s work. Instead, it has left me with an eagerness to return to her writing to see how much I have missed – not so much in her poetry, but in her novels, because I have sometimes failed to see how much one informs the other. I realise that finding themes in her poetry that I might have previously overlooked will offer answers to some of the ambiguities in her other work. And while I don’t necessarily agree with all that is contained in this small collection, it has provided much ground for thought and offers, I think, a useful tool for the future, encouraging me to search for the archetypal in more of my reading. It has reminded me that I can be a lazy reader, assuming that, because a text seems to deal with the modern world, it can be taken at face value. Of course, with Atwood the mythic practically jumps out and hits you on the head, but I begin to better appreciate the way in which she manipulates it, which will, I think, help with some of the novels I have struggled with in the past. I am interested to see, for example, exactly how Grimm’s story "The Girl Without Hands" will play out in The Blind Assassin.

By the way, the acute reader might have spotted that I missed a chapter. This is because I want to come back to it, and the short piece which it considers, "Thylacine Ragout", in a post of its own.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Musing Mondays

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about re-reading…

Have you ever finished a book, then turned around and immediately re-read it? Why? What book(s)? (question courtesy of MizB)
Finding myself stuck on a train (the one in front of us has broken down and, by the sound of it, we could be in for a long wait), I decided that the moment to join in with Musing Mondays, at least occasionally, has arrived.

It's not unusual for me to re-read a book immediately upon finishing it - sometimes, I just don't want to lose the mood it has evoked. I think the last book where this happened was August Folly by Angela Thirkell. Regular readers of this blog will know that she is a favourite author of mine, and I loved both the humour and characterisation in this Barsetshire novel set in a golden age before was has broken out. Slightly longer ago - before I started writing here - I remember doing the same thing with Dance With Me by Victoria Clayton, an enchanting novel set in the 1970s.

More unusually, perhaps, I have a rather odd habit with authors whose style I particularly enjoy, of re-reading before I have finished the book. This frequently happens with a new William Gibson novel: I read about two-thirds - up to the point where the denouement is signalled but hasn't really begun - and then immediately begin again from the start and read right through to the end. Gibson seems to lend himself to this odd habit, his plots seem deceptively simple, but are often multi-layered, so that I find on the second reading there is much detail that I have missed first time round. Of course, this oddity only really works on a first reading, once I know a book there isn't any point to the practice, though complete re-reads aren't precluded, and I think it would be true to say that I have read most of my books at least twice and many of them far more frequently. It does seem to be rather freakish behaviour, I hardly know anyone else who re-reads as much as I do, and no-one else with the two-thirds habit. If there are kindred spirits out there, I'd love to know!

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Short Story Weekend - Many Moons by James Thurber

I promised myself that the next time I wrote about a short story for Once Upon a Time III's short story weekend, it would be one that was easy to find. It wasn't a difficult choice, because it is from a writer I love, and is one of my favourite stories ever. What's more, not only does the story itself demonstrate just how much fun the author had writing it, it predates by a couple of years the first of his longer ventures into the writing of fairytales, The White Deer, and some of the characters in this story, Many Moons, reappear in similar form and voice in the later work.

Ten-year-old Princess Lenore, the apple of her father's eye, has fallen sick of a surfeit of raspberry tarts, and the King, anxious for her recovery, promises whatever her heart desires. If she can have the moon, she replies, she will get better. The King is used to relying on his advisors, so he sends, in succession, for the Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard and the Royal Mathematician, to no avail. By this time sounding distinctly miffed, he sends again, this time for the Court Jester who, wiser than the others, finds a solution. All seems well until the King realises that the moon will rise again the next night, so he sends for...well, you can guess.

Thurber was never at a loss for ways to play with words and the opportunities offered by the oral storytelling tradition are taken up with glee. He quickly establishes the ritual of response that each of the advisors will follow, so that the reader is waiting with delighted expectation for their flights of hyperbole. Only two people in the story have the common-sense they were born with, the Jester and the Princess - in The White Deer the verbal games will tie characters in alliterative knots, and the daring quests the princes undertake will be exacerbated by the need to extricate themselves from the thickets of words (though Thurber's way with a daring quest is something I urge you to discover). In this shorter piece, however, he is a little more restrained. The Lord High Chamberlain lists the items he has acquired on behalf of His Majesty:
'Let me see now...I have got ivory, apes, and peacocks, rubies, opals, and emeralds, black orchids, pink elephants, and blue poodles, gold bugs, scarabs, and flies in amber, hummingbirds' tongues, angels' feathers, and unicorns' horns, giants, midgets, and mermaids, frankincense, ambergris and myrrh, troubadors, minstrels, and dancing women, a pound of butter, two dozen eggs, and a sack of sugar - sorry, my wife wrote that in there.'
'I don't remember any blue poodles,' said the King.
Thurber's fairytales are regular re-reads for me, and I can recite chunks of them (which is not surprising given that repetition of both words and form are common to all, and rhyme plays a huge part). As well as The White Deer he wrote The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O. I couldn't tell you which is the best - for me, it's the one I am reading at the time. I do, though, remember the pleasure that I found in The Wonderful O as a child, a story about a village where a wicked man named Black bans the letter O, so that there are no more opals and moonstones, owls and oaks (or owls in oaks).

Many Moons is the perfect fairytale for reading to children, satisfying to both reader and listener. I only know it as a story from a collection, but I see that it was originally published as a children's story book, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin - you can see a picture of the blue poodles here.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

April's book round-up

Maelstrom by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (L)
The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith - re-read
Matter by Iain M. Banks (L)
Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies - re-read
The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun
Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies - re-read
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies - re-read
The Stabbing in the Stables by Simon Brett (L)
More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong
Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris (L)
Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym
The Cruellest Month by Hazel Holt

I’ve only just noticed how appropriate my first April book was, The Cruellest Month, by Hazel Holt. This was from early in her excellent Mrs Malory series, and is quite simply my favourite so far; I picked it off the pile to read having just returned from Oxford. Exhausted by a very demanding conference (or more exactly, very demanding delegates), I wanted something to remind me that it’s a city I love, and it met my requirements perfectly. Sheila Malory sets off to combine a bit of quiet research in the Bodleian with a visit to her old college friend and some maternal fussing over her student son. Her friend also has a son, a pleasant but reserved young man, who gets on better with Sheila (his godmother) than he does with his bossy, outgoing mother, and he is quick to confide in Sheila over an accidental death in the library. The deceased wasn’t a pleasant woman, and Tony is convinced that all is not as it seems. The ever inquisitive Sheila is soon chatting away to all and sundry, teasing out the background.

I read these books as I come across them, all in the wrong order, and it doesn’t seem to matter in the least. Sheila is one of those people you dread sitting next to a train – she would have your life story out of you within the first hour, and you’d have confided things you wouldn’t tell your best friend. Fortunately, unless you also happened to be a murderer, you wouldn’t feel too uncomfortable about it, because she’s so extremely nice, and she’d probably go off with your address so that she could send you that useful recipe for gingerbread – before you knew it, you’d be exchanging Christmas cards for years. But however comfortable a companion she may be, there’s wit and intelligence there too, and a strong moral sense, but right to the end the reader doesn’t know how Sheila will deal with the difficult decisions which are the inevitable result of her curiosity. Early books in the series are hard to come by (although US readers may find reasonably priced copies on Abebooks), but it’s possible to find the later ones in libraries. If you can get hold of The Cruellest Month, do!

There will be more on April’s books in the next few days, I hope, though blogging time is hard to find. I am now resigned to finding myself too tired to write in the evenings, so have resolved to try to find an hour or so before I start work in the mornings. I’ve never been an early bird, but now it seems that I’m no longer a night owl.

Not me!
Photo by Ryly