Book cover of Women Who Read are Dangerous

Reading Railroad: July’s Reading

I read 8 books in July, and so many were good!  5/8 are 2017 releases. One book made it to my favorites’ list. And dystopias are definitely in right now; 3 out of 5 of the novels were dystopian, and 2 of those came out this year. But I like a good dystopia.

Novels

Book cover of When the English Fall by David WilliamsWhen the English Fall by David Williams. Published July 11th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

There tend to be 2 kinds of apocalypse novels: 1) traveling across an apocalyptic landscape and 2) diary of survival at home. When the English Fall ‘falls’ (ahem) into the second category.

The community and religious identity of the protagonist makes this one unique from other survival diaries I’ve read. Jacob’s Amish. He and his family live in Pennsylvania in an Amish community. His daughter Sadie foretells the coming climate-driven apocalypse, which also knocks out everything  electrical. The Amish have obvious survival advantages over their ‘English’ (non-Amish) neighbors. They’ve already acclimated to the lifestyle the coming days and months require. But they’re not ready for the violence of their neighbors, nor will they condone the killing of thieves in the name of ‘justice.’

With so many ‘do whatever it takes to survive’ apocalypse novels, this one provides a breath of fresh air to the genre. It gives a different way of surviving, a way that embraces the humanity in everyone. Also, the author is Amish, and even though I know very little about their lifestyle, it felt authentic to me as I read. I could tell he knew the culture, and I felt like I learned something about that way of life.

I wonder….will there be a 2nd? I really want to know what happens to Jacob and his family, even though I realize the constraints of a ‘found’ dairy mean that’s very unlikely.

Thanks to Netgalley and Algonquin Books for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover for Amatka by Karin TidbeckAmatka by Karin Tidbeck. Published June 27th, 2017. Rating: 3/5

After reading Jagannath: Stories by Karin Tidbeck years ago, I knew I wanted to read anything of hers published in English. It’s still one of my favorite short story collections. I believe Amatka is the only other one of her works published in the U.S. (she’s Swedish), though I could be wrong.

Amatka is both similar and different than Tidbeck’s short stories. It has the same subtlety, the same unique world building, and the same ambiguous ending (which I loved). I missed out on the lyricism of Tidbeck’s short stories, and I never felt engaged with the main character, Vanja. But I also think Vanja isn’t the kind of person who lets others become fully engaged with her. She holds herself off with only occasional lapses into humanness, which should be more heartbreaking because of how rare they are, but I admit I didn’t find them so.

The dystopian world discourages emotional connections with others as well. I don’t want to go into more detail about the world building, because that aids in the novel’s mystery, but the culture suppresses emotion and creativity — for a reason.

What Tidbeck does really well in this novel is maintain intrigue in the seemingly mundane. Vanja has been sent to Amatka to investigate and report on sanitation habits. Several of her reports are included throughout the novel. What should be a boring investigation is actually quite interesting, and slowly develops into Vanja’s continued investigation into areas she hasn’t been hired for.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it to anyone looking for unique world building in their dystopias.

Thanks to Netgalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book cover for The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente. Published June 6th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

Inspired by Gail Simone’s term ‘refrigerated’ — for all the women in superhero comics who die to further a superhero’s story — and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, The Refrigerator Monologues takes a hard feminist look at how women are defined in not only comics, but also in life. In each chapter a dead woman from a superhero universe gets her chance to speak, to tell her story. Yet no matter how different their personalities, these women all made the same mistake. They lost their identities by helping the men in their lives.

And guess what? I know a lot of women who do that. Though most of the time, I see it with their children, not their spouses. But many women struggle with the problem of ‘helping’ people to the point of no longer helping herself.

I know very little about superhero comics. I watch Arrow and Flash. I’ve watched the Batman movies, and Wonder Woman. I’ve tried others, but found them boring. I’ve attempted to read superhero graphic novels, but am inevitably disappointed. But that’s, in part, because the women are refrigerated. And also all the characters seem to lack depth, in general, to me. Because of my limited knowledge, I didn’t get all Valente’s inside clues as to who these women really are. I know they correlate to superhero characters, because I read an interview with Valente where she said that, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough about comics. However, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the book.

Book cover of The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Published February 28th, 2017. Rating: 4.5/5

This is such an amazing novel, receiving a lot of well-deserved attention.

In case you’ve missed all the novel’s hype, 16-year-old Starr witnesses a cop murder her friend Khalil. She’s the only witness. And when the media starts portraying Khalil as a stereotype, and her neighborhood rises to protest his death, Starr decides she needs to let the world know the Khalil she knew, and her story of the shooting.

Meanwhile, Starr is struggling with friendships as the only black girl in the school she attends as well as her relationship with a (fantastic) white boy who goes to the same school. She has one voice when she’s in Garden Heights, and another at school. And then she’s got such a rich and wonderful family; I loved them all. It’s fantastic to see a YA novel with loving, caring parents, and especially a black family (since the media often portrays black families as ‘broken.) Starr’s dad is a Black Panthers’ fanatic, and wants to rebuild Garden Heights, starting with his grocery store. Her mom is a full-time nurse and has such a wonderful sense of humor. Her little brother is a brat, as all little brothers are, and her half-brother Seven is part brat and part protector. Uncle Carl is a police officer who loves them as his own. So Starr knows not all officers see a black man and assume his life is worth less than theirs. Her uncle isn’t like that, but that doesn’t help her anger.

Angie Thomas is a stellar writer. You could really hear the characters’ voices, and the pacing is fast but also nuanced. This is one of those books I think everybody needs to read.

Book cover of Night of the Animals by Bill BrounNight of the Animals by Bill Broun. Published July 2016. Rating: 2.5/5

Well, that was weird! And I like weird. But the pacing was weird too, and while I dig weird content, it rambled in some places, and breezed over really important developments in others.

The main character, Cuthbert, is a 90-year-old addict who hears animals talking. And he’s convinced his long-dead brother Drystan is an otter. In this future dystopia, animals are rapidly becoming extinct, and to make matters worse, a pervasive suicide cult tries to kill off the remaining animals. The animals ask Cuthbert to release the animals in the London Zoo, which is the last remaining zoo.

Interspersed with Cuthbert’s story is that of Dr. Bajwa, his psychiatric doctor, and Astrid, a police inspector.

In the beginning the pace is sluggish, with flashbacks to Cuthbert’s childhood, his struggles with Flot addiction, and his visits with Dr. Bajwa. It takes FOREVER to get to the zoo breakout. And then suddenly all the plot developments happen. Astrid and her motivations are given cursory explanation, and then once she and Cuthbert start interacting it’s like reading an acid trip (I guess. Not really speaking from experience here!). But some things really needed development.

And what’s with the footnotes? I could easily understand all the footnoted terms in context.

I don’t regret reading this. I enjoyed Cuthbert as an unreliable narrator, and I actually wish the authorial voice had stepped in less often during his pov chapters, so I could fully question what was real vs. what Cuthbert imagined was real. Cuthbert is a loveable guy, and I enjoyed his character. I also love animals, so that was fun. (Though some of the philosophical discussions with Muezza the sand cat could’ve been cut.)

Short Story Collections

Book cover of The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob WeismanThe New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. Published August 8th, 2017. Rating: 4/5

An excellent collection of contemporary fantasy short stories. I’d already read 8 out of the 19 stories, but I enjoyed rereading them. I’d also already read 15 of the authors, so it’s nice to know I’m keeping up with new fantasy authors!

If you’re on the hunt for some new authors, this is a great collection to read. It’s also interesting to note that of the 19 stories, only 2 were 2nd world fantasy. The other 17 stories were rooted in this world. But what all of these stories tend to do is use fantasy as a metaphor for something about living, and I love that. There are some really powerful stories in this collection. You can also check out my reviews of each story. Many of them are excellent.

Fairytale Collections

Book cover for Italian Folktales by Italo CalvinoItalian Folktales compiled by Italo Calvino. First published in 1956. Rating: 5/5 A New Favorite!

Wow! It’s hard to even know where to begin reviewing this collection. I started reading it in 2015 for a group read, and finished about a third it then. I set it aside meaning to return to it, but never did. At the start of this year, I decided I would read 10 fairy tales from it between every print book I finished. And 7 months later, I’m finished! I enjoyed the process so much I’m going to start doing that with another fairytale collection.

And I literally read it to pieces. Both the front and back cover have torn off, and now a chunk at the beginning fell out. I’m going to have to upgrade to a hardback version!

These tales are magical. If you’re someone only familiar with the Grimms, you have to read this. Or any fairytale fan needs to read this. Or if you think you’re not a fairytale fan, then maybe you should read this.

So much fun and weirdness.

Nonfiction

Book cover of Women Who Read Are DangerousWomen Who Read Are Dangerous by Stefan Bollman. Published in 2008. Rating: 4/5

More than anything, this is an art book. The forward by Karen Joy Fowler provides a general overview of the history of women who read, while the rest of the book shows artwork that depicts women with books, and a brief commentary and interpretation of the art by, I assume, Stefan Bollmann. I did not always agree with his interpretations, but I loved looking at the art and making up my own stories about the women painted, and how the painting came to be. That’s what drew me to the book in the first place. It would make a really great coffee table book.

 

What good books did you read last month?

Fairytale Syllabus


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This semester I taught my very first fairytale themed college course. I’ve had lots of requests for the reading list, so here it is, all free online if you follow the links. (I’m so thankful places like Surlalune exist, making fairy tales readily accessible. It’s also where I found all the images in this post.) The class is an Intro to the University course, so sometimes I had to base the readings off of guest university speakers, thus it doesn’t follow the typical fairytale class setup, where you read a different tale-type each week. Instead, I grouped stories by relevant themes, with a few tale-type weeks to enforce the idea that there is no single version of a fairy tale. The course also needed to be multicultural, so I intentionally had my students read tales from around the world instead of only Grimm and Perrault, though they still read many of those. My goal for next year is to include even more non-European tales.

Week 1: Introduction

On Fairy-Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien

Gustave Doré

Week 2: Little Red Riding Hood

The Story of Grandmother, Italian

Little Red Riding Hood, Perrault, French

Little Red Cap, Grimms, German

The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter

The Little Girl and the Wolf by James Thurber

Little Red Riding Hood has a Gun by Amelia Hamilton

 

Kay Nielsen
Kay Nielsen

Week 3: Animal Bridegrooms

Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, French

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Asbjornsen and Möe, Norwegian

The Monkey Prince collected by Stokes, Indian

 

 

 

 

Edmund Dulac
Edmund Dulac

Week 4: Cinderella

Yeh-hsien, Chinese

Donkeyskin, Perrault, French

Cinderella, or Aschenputtel, Grimms, German

The Poor Turkey Girl, Zuni

Little Burnt Face, Micmac

Introduction to The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim

 

H.J. Ford
H.J. Ford

Week 5: The Necessities

Hansel and Gretel, Grimms, German

Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, Persian

Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen, Danish

The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde, British

 

 

A.W. Bayes
A.W. Bayes

Week 6: Stress and Sorrow

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, Danish

Marwe in the Underworld, Kenyan

The Juniper Tree, Grimms, German

The Bamboo-cutter and the Moon-child collected by Ozaki, Japanese

 

 

Anne Anderson
Anne Anderson

Week 7: Villains

Bluebeard, Perrault, French

Rumpelstiltskin, Grimms, German

Vasilissa the Beautiful, Russian

Handout: “Breaking the Disney Spell” by Jack Zipes.

 

 

Milo Winter
Milo Winter

Week 8: Working Hard for the Money

Six Swans, Grimms, German

Puss in Boots, Perrault, French

The Stonecutter, Japanese

 

 

 

 

Halloween Reading

You can find everything I had them read for Halloween on a previous post.

And that’s what I had them read! I could’ve easily picked double the amount. It was so hard to be choosy, and I’ll definitely make some changes next time I teach it, though it will be hard to cut some of these!

 

The Fairy Tales behind 5 Awesome Films


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In no particular order…

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli makes many fantastic fairytale films, and I’m putting two on this list. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is written and directed by Takahata, who isn’t as well known, in the U.S. at least, as his fellow Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, I’ve only seen this film of his, though he’s directed 5 movies for the studio, and I kind of thought I’d seen most of their films. Obviously not! The Tale of the Princess Kaguya retells the fairy tale The Bamboo-cutter and the Moon-child (click PDF to read the full version), a really lovely Japanese tale I read first in Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation too, though I love some of the additions Takahata makes at the end. In this fairy tale, a bamboo cutter finds a miniature girl inside a bamboo shoot, and brings her home to his wife so they can raise her as their own daughter. The early scenes of her childhood in the film are so adorable. Wanting the best for his adopted daughter, the father decides to build a mansion for them to live in, though Kaguya would much rather stay in their little home, with her village friends. Beautiful, Kaguya attracts the attention of several suitors, but she would much rather never marry, remain with her family, and enjoy nature. This tale has a really interesting celestial twist at the end, as the title of the original suggests. The film’s lovely animation mimics Japanese silkscreen; the trailer doesn’t do it justice.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I hope you’ve already seen Howl’s Moving Castle, but if you haven’t, you need to. This was my very first Studio Ghibli film, a rental from Hastings in my undergrad, dorm-room days. I instantly fell in love with it, and the very next day went to the library and checked out the book it’s based on–Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, a middle grade novel. Both the film and novel include many fairytale tropes, but in particular they subvert Beauty and the Beast. When the main character, Sophia, is cursed by a witch, she turns into an old woman. She joins Howl in his Baba-Yaga steampunk house, and you’ll never guess it, but Howl can transform into a beast. Actually, there are a bunch of transformations, not just Sophia and Howl. Both versions are excellent, though I admit to liking the movie a bit more than the novel. The steampunk animation is awesome, and it was my first Studio Ghibli film, after all.

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is super adorable, and I find myself whistling that theme song ALL OF THE TIME. In case you don’t know, selkies are seals that can transform into humans. A lot of selkie fairy tales describe a seal transforming into a beautiful woman and a man falling in love with her and stealing her seal skin. The two have children, but the selkie wife can’t live away from the ocean, and she becomes more and more unhappy. Then one day one of her children finds her seal skin, and she returns back to the sea. Here’s one such story, though there are many. Sometimes the selkies are male, sometimes they steal humans who come too close to the water, sometimes they save the drowning. There are many, many selkie tales. I highly recommend reading The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend, if you’re interested in selkie legends. Song of the Sea takes up the story after the selkie wife presumably dies in childbirth, leaving behind two children. The eldest, Ben, misses his mother desperately and blames his little sister Saoirse for her death. But he also loves his sister. When Saoirse finds a seal skin that fits her perfectly, their grandmother rushes them to the city, trying to keep them away from the magic that killed their mother. But you can’t fight who you are. This is directed by the same person, Tomm Moore, who made The Secret of Kells, also a fantastic movie. Go watch both!

Ex Machina

All right, now for some adult movies. When I went to see Ex Machina in the theaters, I had no idea it had any fairytale connections. I love artsy sci-fi films, so that’s why I went to see it. By the time it got to the end I was so excited. Bluebeard! In a sci-fi movie! The most famous version of Bluebeard was penned by Charles Perrault in 17th century France. Lots of people tell me they’ve never heard of the tale until I give them the plot. Ever heard of that story where a girl marries this guy she knows nothing about, and she’s allowed in any room in his castle except one? And of course she opens it while he’s gone, and discovers the bodies of all his previous wives? Well, Bluebeard is that story. I also really enjoy two versions collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Fitcher’s Bird and The Robber Bridegroom. Highly recommend reading all of them. Once you’re familiar with the tale, you’ll start spotting this motif in a lot of movies and novels, particularity if you’re into horror and thrillers. I don’t want to go into too many details about how Ex Machina subverts Bluebeard (as well as the idea of a male savior sweeping in to save the princess), but it’s definitely an interesting take on the tale.

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is a classic based on a Hans Christian Andersen short story of the same name. If you’re unfamiliar with HCA, he’s a 19th century Dutch writer that infused Christian morality in his fairytale inspired short stories. Often, his tales illuminate the conditions of the poor and destitute, and many are so famous that people mistakenly believe they’re from an oral tradition, like Little Mermaid. If you haven’t read the original version of Little Mermaid, prepare yourself for one depressing read. In fact, all of HCA’s stories are depressing, but they can also be quite lovely. The Red Shoes is one of my favorites by him. It’s very simple: a little girl falls in love with pair of red shoes, and even though her grandmother tells her not to wear them to church, she does so. When she puts them on she can’t stop dancing, and eventually, well, I don’t want to ruin the story for you. It’s super short, so go read it! The movie version centers on a ballet dancer, Vicky, who eventually dances in a ballet of HCA’s The Red Shoes, so it gets all meta. She loves a composer, but she also loves dancing. How can she choose between the two? I end up rewatching this one about once a year.

What are some of your favorite fairytale films?