Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: Fairy Tales of the Fiercer Sex.

Y’know, I’m just realizing now that I don’t have a column that’s really about reviewing new collections of traditional folk and fairy tales.  I suppose Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report will have to pull double duty on this and retellings.

Anyway, not too long ago (coinicidentally, right around the time of the Women’s March) I found out about a new audiobook being released titled Fairy Tales of the Fiercer Sex narrated by Alison Larkin and published by Alison Larkin Presents.  And not long after I was actually gifted a copy by the publisher for review purposes.

Fairy Tales of the Fiercer Sex is the latest in what seems to be a growing subset of fairy tale collections: collections centered around strong female protagonists.  Other such collections include Tatterhood and Other Tales edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps, Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters edited by Kathleen Ragan and Not One Damsel in Distress by Jane Yolen.  The reason books like these probably have been published a lot more lately is to counter one of the more persistent stereotypes about fairy tales: that they’re full of submissive, damsels-in-distress.

Of course, we all know the problem with stereotypes.  Just because something is sometimes or often true doesn’t mean it’s always true.
Now the thing that makes Fairy Tales of the Fiercer Sex stand out is that it’s an audiobook.  A lot of books get turned into audiobooks, but this one was an audiobook from day one.  I don’t listen to many audiobooks, but I thought it would be fun to give this one a try.

The collection itself is made up of European tales.  Most are folk tales, but there are some literary ones present too.  In fact, the whole collection starts off with a real doozy.  The first story in the whole audiobook is “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen.  I kind of question whether it was a good idea to start off with such a long story.  On one hand, it’s a story that maybe has a little extra clout since Disney used it as the inspiration for Frozen, and thus has some credibility as headlining story.  At the same time, it could be a little daunting for someone who’s just trying this audiobook out.  The other stories are not quite as long and are a little bit easier to listen to in bite-sized chunks.  There are some decent story choices here.  There’s “Molly Whuppie”, “Cap O’Rushes” and “The Iron Stove” as well as more well-known choices like “Hansel and Gretel”, “Little Red Cap” and “Beauty and the Beast”.  The thing that gives me pause is that there are also some stories that feature foolish women like “The Three Sillies” and “Frederick and Catherine” that I don’t think really fit the theme of the collection.  Also, I should note a personal preference.  When it comes to themed collections like this, I usually prefer a more cosmopolitan approach.  While European stories are fine, it would have been nice to have some from Asia, Africa and the Americas too.
Alison Larkin does a good job as narrator.  She’s got a good cadence and she’s easy to understand.  She does have a tendency to use the same voices and accents for characters, though never in the same story.  One noticeable bit is a Scottish accent she uses frequently.  It stands out, but she does it well.  Especially when compared to the Russian accent she attempts when narrating “Baba Yaga”.
It’s really a solid collection in audiobook form.  Maybe not anything surprising or mind-blowing, but solid.  A handy collection if you want to do something like listen to fairy tales while using the treadmill at the gym (which is how I listened to a good chunk of it).

Another nice thing is that you can actually get this audiobook for free!  You can actually download it for free if you sign up to try  So, not a bad deal.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Culture and Crudeness: A surprising plus for The Tale of Tales.

I’m going to say something and I’m pretty sure a lot of you folks will be able to relate to it: Sometimes, it’s easy to have more books than there is time to read them.

The act of buying a book takes just a moment, but the act of reading it takes far longer.  So, books that you bought long ago or books that may have been released to tie into certain other real world events may not get read until much later.

That’s the reason why, though this book was released to coincide with the movie release of The Tale of Tales, I didn’t read it until much later and I’m only getting around to writing about it now.
Okay, so The Tale of Tales is a collection of tales collected by writer Giambattista Basile and set within a frame story that was published in two volumes in 1634 and 1636 by his sister Adriana.  I’ve actually read two different versions of this book.  One is this one, which attempts to translate rather faithfully from the Neapolitan language.  The other was a simplified and highly bowdlerized version that I downloaded for free off of the internet and which was published under the title The Pentamerone (a name inspired by another popular anthology The Decameron).
Now, of the two, I will say that I like the version pictured better.  It’s just a much richer, if more challenging, text.  The stories are full of references to local customs, games, news of the time and other such things.  Footnotes abound to explain it all.  Though, none of it really gets in the way of understanding the plots of the stories.

But I must admit that it wasn’t the historical references that caught my attention.  It was the bathroom humor (warning: there might be some examples of coarse language following).

Hey, I’m not saying I’m the hugest fan of it all, but not only the presence of it but the level of use it receives definitely make this book stand out.  The crudeness is often delivered with such casualness that you wonder if it was just a regular pattern of speech in 17th Century Naples (and there’s a pretty good chance it was).  Birth is often described in this book as a child being “shat into the world”.  If that child is a girl, they may be referred to as “a little fart of a girl”.  And when they go all out with crude insults, it’s a thing to behold.  In the framing story, there’s an argument between an old woman and a young boy.  During this fight, the boy lets loose calling the old woman “bogeyman’s grandmother, blood-sucking witch, baby drowner, rag shitter, fart gatherer.” (which begs the question: how does one gather farts?).  There’s also one tale entitled “The Cockroach, the Mouse and the Cricket” which involves those three animals doing some rather crude things to a human being while they’re sleeping.

Beyond that, this collection actually hosts variants of a number of popular tales.  Some are darker than the ones that have become popular.  “The Cinderella Cat” and “Sun, Moon and Talia” are darker versions of “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” respectively.  Yet, the book also includes “Petrosinella”, which is a decidedly more liberated version of “Rapunzel”.  There’s also “Cagliuso”, which is a version of “Puss in Boots” that’s mostly the same as Perrault’s version when it comes to story beats.
So, it’s a collection of largely popular tales told in a way that utilizes some of the crudest humor around.

And you know what?  That’s fine.  It’s not just fine.  It’s actually kind of awesome in its way.
Truthfully, I can’t help thinking that this sort of telling might be closer to the traditional peasant stories than folks like the Grimms would lead us to believe.  I mean, the European peasant probably had a cruder sensibility than your average nobleman or scholar.  And the Grimms, despite being German, were essentially Victorians.  Victorians were not known for engaging in such base humor.

But what’s really great about Basile’s approach is that it gives us another avenue to approach the fairy tale.  The truth is that we tend to get kind of hung up on what those previously mentioned Victorians wrote.  And we also get hung up on what animation studios adapt fairy tales into (especially the internet.  Remember my post on clickbait lists?).

We get so hung up on what the fairy tale is or is not, but very few think about what it could also be or might have also been in the past.

Sure, fairy tales can be bright and kid-friendly.  They can also be dark and scary.  They can also be crude and kind of dirty.  On top of that, they can also be grand and opulent like the French salon writers wrote them.  And they can be a million other things if we choose to tell them  that way.  The fairy tales now belong to everyone and they can be told in a million different ways.

So, that’s my take on it.  One more book from the “to read” pile has been finished.  Now, if I’ll be able to get around to the Tale of Tales movie sometime this year is yet to be seen.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Oz Books.

Ah, Oz!  The great American fairy tale!  Well, the great American children’s fantasy series at the very least.  But fairy tales did have a part in Oz’s creation.

With NBC showing their decidedly darker take on Oz with Emerald City, I thought it would be a good time to go back to the Oz well and give these books a proper post all their own.  You may recall that I touched on Oz before, notably for one of my more poignant posts.  Also, I’d like to note that this post was nearly about just the first book, but I found it hard not to think of it in terms of the series as a whole (or at least all the parts of it I’ve read).
Anyway, the Oz books are the works of an American writer and actor named Lyman Frank Baum (L. Frank Baum for short).  After having some success with his first book aimed at younger audiences, Father Goose, Baum hit on the idea of writing his own “wonder tale”.  His feeling was that the old fairy tales of Europe were rapidly becoming outdated for modern, American children.  He particularly didn’t see the point for the more gruesome endings to the Grimm Brothers stories, which were usually used to teach a lesson.  He felt that modern education of the time served well enough to teach morality (some even now would argue the opposite, but that’s how he felt).  So, from this impulse The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was born.  And it went on to be one of the longest children’s fantasy series ever published.  Though, it was not without some promotional help.  Baum adapted the book to the stage himself rather early on and would later make some silent Oz movies.  And also not without some trepidation, once he saw the juggernaut he had created.  Baum had wanted to end the series at numerous points but the demand kept him writing more sequels.  He did write some other children’s fantasy books, but none quite as popular as the Oz series.
But one notable thing about the Oz series is that it’s a uniquely American fantasy series.  What are some of the things that mark this series as very American?  Well, let’s take a look.

First of all, most of the books are “road trip” stories.  While travelling and quests are hardly new material for any sort of fantasy, travel holds a special place in the American psyche ranging from the family car trip to the movement of pioneers during westward expansion.  This is probably because of the fact that the American landscape is rather vast and perhaps a little bit too spread out.  The Land of Oz also directly reflects the way in which the United States has routinely been divided during its early history.  Prior to the American Civil War, everything seemed divided between North and South.  After the Civil War, when the drive became greater to expand the country to the Pacific, the split became between the East and the West.  So, when the first book has Dorothy first come to Oz, we have good witches in the North and South, a wicked witch of the East lying dead and a wicked witch in the West that is still in power.  So, the North and South have already been tamed, the East has been defeated and the West still needs to be won.  In fact, there is a sort of sense of the “frontier” throughout Oz that makes it different from most European fantasy.  European fantasy often draws on the pagan past as a source of its magic.  Oz’s magic and strangeness come from something else.  When Dorothy first meets the Good Witch of the North, Dorothy says that Aunt Em had told her that all the witches had died ages ago.  The Good Witch asks her if Kansas is a civilized country, which Dorothy responds to in the affirmative.  The Good Witch then explains that the reason why Oz still has witches is that it is an uncivilized country.  So, that’s the reason.  Despite the different peoples and the towns and cities, the reason Oz still has magic and witches is because it is in some way still wild and untamed.  Of course, human beings will either adapt to the wildness or subsume it, which is what Dorothy does in the later books.  In The Emerald City of Oz, Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry all move to Oz permanently.  This kind of reflects the changing attitude to what was once the American frontier.  In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum describes Kansas as being gray, hard and foreboding.  But now most people think of Kansas and the Midwest as a whole as being quaint and homey.
There’s more to touch on.  For example, there’s an entire school of thought that believes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is reflective of the Populist Movement.  I’ll just provide a link HERE.

However, while there are some things that are evidence of America’s past, there are some places where it was ahead of its time.  One notable thing is that Oz is one of the popular fantasy realms where everyone who holds any power of consequence is female, whether it’s the four witches, Princess Ozma or even primary antagonists like Dorothy.  Most of the male characters either feel they’re lacking something or are a fraud like the Wizard.  This probably stems from the fact that L. Frank Baum was in fact married to Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was a suffragist and considered a radical feminist at the time.  Her political opinions probably filtered into some of Baum’s work.  Also, some of the magical devices he imagined for Oz, presaged future mechanical devices like television and wireless phones.
But really, though I’ve made all these observations, I think there’s something else that really defines Oz for me.  Just as a country should be defined by its people, Oz is defined by its characters (and yes, I know I’ve talked about this before).  Early American children’s literature is often marked by its sense of whimsy and Oz has whimsical characters to spare.  Everyone knows the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion from the MGM movie.  How about Jack Pumpkinhead, who helped Ozma escape from the witch Mombi?  How about the beautiful and ethereal Polychrome, the Rainbow’s Daughter?  Or maybe the Woozy?  There’s also Scraps Patchwork, in all her whimsical, playful, poetical glory.  Or the Shaggy Man, Button Bright, Ozma, Ojo the Unlucky, the Gump, the Glass Cat, the Woggle-Bug, Tik-Tok, the Very Hungry Tiger, General Jinjur or any number of others?  Heck, the Land of Oz even has its own immigrants.  Not just Dorothy and her family who moved there.  There are also the characters Tiny Trot and Captain Bill, who started off in another book The Sea Fairies and moved over to the Oz series later.  Oz has one of the most diverse, vibrant and inventive casts of characters in all of children’s fantasy and that’s one of the things that makes the Oz books worth loving if nothing else.

I’m sure there’s more that I can say about Oz, but I’ll leave those things for other posts.  Instead, to tip my hat to the classic movie that keeps Oz in the forefront of many people’s minds, I’ll have The Blanks play me out.  And I’ll see you all on the road to the Emerald City.