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.


Eva said...

Good luck with your exams! :)

monix said...

It's nice to see you back. I like the sound of the Anne Sexton book, I'll have to add it to my wish list.

Good luck with the exams.

Logophile said...

Eva, thanks! Can't wait to catch up on your blog!

Maureen, thanks for the good luck wishes! I'm actually planning to put the Sexton book onto Bookmooch but let me know if you'd like it and I'll send it over to you instead.

Andi said...

Welcome back! I'm so glad you enjoyed Transformations. It's one of my favorites! Unfortunately I didn't get around to Other Voices, Other Rooms this month, but I'll read it eventually despite some less than stellar reviews overall.

monix said...

Yes, I'd like to read 'Transformations'. How about swapping with one of my surplus Virago Modern Classics? I've got Molly Kean's 'Good behaviour' up as my June book draw but I have duplicates of several more of her books if you fancy one.

Juliet said...

Welcome back - I'd been wondering whether it was exams that had kept you from your blog. Very best of luck with them. My day's reading (for work, not pleasure) is a typescript on treaty conflict in EU and international law. So you are not alone (and I don't even get a degree at the end of this pain, just a few quid to keep the wolves from the door!)

Logophile said...

Andi, thanks for bringing getting Anne Sexton onto my radar!

M, great idea! I'm happy with whatever Molly Kean you think is good (and you've got a surplus of!).

Juliet, I'm glad I'm at work and not having to deal with that! Although rather nerdily, it sounds quite interesting (I love international law!)

monix said...

Email me at with your details and I'll send a Molly Keane.

Anonymous said...

Have you read Angela Carter's collection _The Bloody Chamber_? The stories are loose retellings of fairytales -- preserving the essence more than the content of each tale -- and (I thought) outrageously good. I think you might enjoy them, given your thoughts about the Sexton poems. I haven't read that, but will most definitely check it out now!

Good luck with the exams!

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Logophile, it's great to hear that you're back. I hope you do well on your exams. :]

Transformations is something that I have yet to read. I'm pleased with your positive review of the book that perhaps I will find the courage to read Sexton's plays.

Again, Truman Capote is an author that I have been hesitating to read, but your review convinced me that I should just go for it. Well, with the summer here let's see how much I read.

Take care! :]

verbivore said...

So late coming to this but just wanted to say good luck!! Exams are such an excrutiating, energy-sucking endeavour. Hopefully, you are already finished or heading into the last stretch.
Looking forward to your return to regular blogging!

mustie said...

I felt similarly about the Capote novel. When I first read it I loved that it was so conscious of style but still accessible. When I came back several years later, though, I decided that Capote was kind of faking it. There isn't much under that gloss of style.

Logophile said...

Preeta, I've only read The Magic Toyshop, which I loved, so I think I'd really like The Bloody Chamber. Shall keep an eye out for it!

Orchidus, I preferred Breakfast at Tiffany's so that may be a better way into Capote.

Verbivore, thanks for that! Couldn't agree more (and normal blogging business will be returning soon!)

Mustie, I think you've nailed it for me - there isn't a huge amount going on underneath the shiny surface.