Saturday, 31 May 2008

American fairytales

I have been almost non-existent on this blog for the last month, mainly because my reading has temporarily paused. Well, I'm reading plenty it's just that none of it is interesting enough to share (unless anyone wants to hear my thoughts on the UK's Companies Act 2006?). Yes, my final law exams start next week and my reading for pleasure has been subordinated to my reading for necessity. With work being more than a little hectic at the moment, I haven't even had any time to read through the blogs I regularly visit! I've been feeling quite deprived...but the prospect of just a couple of more weeks of slog before being free to read without guilt for the first time since I started working full time/studying part time four years ago is the light at the end of this particular tunnel. I shall soon be able to read not just books but all my favourite blogs (my unread posts on Bloglines are at a crazy level, though I have promised myself that I will read them all properly soon!).

In the meantime, it's time to catch up just a little on some of my pending reviews, starting with my Reading Dangerously April & May titles.

This collection of poetry is short but no less formidable for that. Sexton reimagines (transforms) 17 fairy tales originally told by the Brothers Grimm. Starting with The Gold Key (a rather obscure tale that I had to look up in my Grimm collection), Sexton introduces her role within the poems as that of a "middle-aged witch", with her face in a book and her mouth wide ready to tell a story or two. This poetic witch wants to make us remember what it was like to be read to as a child, to make us reimagine these fairy tales ourselves, to remind us that the sanitised, Disneyfied tales we tell our children today are at some distance from the strangeness and violence of Grimms' original tales.

I particularly enjoyed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As with all of the tales, Sexton includes an introductory verse framing the poetic retelling:

No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin Du Rhone,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes
open and shut.
Open to say,
Good Day Mama,
and shut for the thrust
of the unicorn.

I had forgotten quite how shocking this fairy tale is. The stepmother, still clinging to the glory of her youthful beauty, ordering the murder of her stepdaughter, and competitor, and setting out to do the job herself when she learns that the girl has survived to keep house for the seven dwarfs.

For me, Sexton succeeds in reminding me of the strangeness of fairy tale by conjuring the feeling of reading these tales for the first time. There are no simple happy ending heres, like Cinderella, and her prince living as "they say, happily ever after, like two dolls in a museum case never bothered by diapers or dust, never arguing over the timing of an egg, never telling the same story twice, never getting a middle-aged spread, their darling smiles pasted on for eternity."


Joel Knox, thirteen and still reeling from his mother's death, is despatched to live with his mysterious father in the crumbling mansion in Alabama where he now lives with his new wife. On arrival, the hero father he has imagined is nowhere to be found on, as his eccentric stepmother and her even more eccentric cousin Randolph, steer him deftly away from questions about his father.

I enjoyed aspects of this novel. Joel is believably on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, especially the way he still retreats into the childish imaginative world of his hero Mr Mystery when real life gets too painful. I liked the interaction with the astoundingly tom-boyish Idabel and the general Southern Gothic atmosphere (the sonambulent mansion, Miss Amy and her obsession with the past, the wonderfully named Jesus Fever) but I was left a little cold overall. I had realised almost instantly who the mysterious lady at the window was, and found the layers of backstory revealed in Randolph's rambling stories overlong.