Read a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of sho...moreRead a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of short stories based on fairy tales. Some stray closer to simple retellings than others (The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon) but they’re all original works rather than just an update of Grimm/Perrault.
I haven’t read much Angela Carter before – just Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, which she compiled rather than wrote herself – but I had heard a lot about this collection from friends who studied it at school or university, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In the end I loved it. Not all stories quite hit the note for me – The Erl-King was probably my least favourite – but each had such an interesting idea behind it, or style of writing, and I could see what Carter was aiming for that it didn’t cause me to feel I should deduct a star. And even if some stories were superior to others they all worked together as a complete collection very well. Almost every story contained a female character that subverted the traditional ‘fairy tale female’ role in some way, however subtle, and was a theme of female sexuality running through all of them that united the collection just as much as the fact that they are all based on folklore and fairytale.
Of course this isn’t for everyone. In fact it’s what put a few of my friends off the stories – that there was so much sex and focus on sexuality, virginity and menstruation in something that was meant to be a ‘fairy tale’. But as someone who frequently finds myself objecting to passive female roles in both fairy tales, novels, and TV and film I found myself really enjoying this book, even if parts of it did seem a bit heavy handed. I also tend to agree with Carter in that these things are there in the original stories if you just look and think for a few moments, she’s just highlighted them and given the women a bit more agency. So for me it didn’t seem like it was ‘ruining my favourite childhood stories’ at all, but merely offering a different perspective on them.
The book opens with the title story, The Bloody Chamber, by far the longest story of the collection and quite possibly my favourite. Based on the tale of Bluebeard, its plot sticks very closely to that of the original, but is told in first person from the perspective of Bluebeard’s latest wife and updated to mid 20th century France. Instead of being an anonymous woman in a fairy tale the unnamed narrator becomes a real person, easier to relate to – a young woman not forced into but willingly marrying a much older man she feels nothing for, and is a little intimidated by, in return for his money. I have to admit this characterisation did not endear me to her at first but being able to read her thoughts, why she had done it, how she had had to rebel against her more sensible mother, and the slow realisation of what the marriage actually entails helped me to feel for her as a person who had made an understandable, if very unfortunate, decision. By telling it through the teenage bride’s eyes Carter highlights the more subtle everyday horrors that are there but very much brushed over in the original – the terror of a young girl getting married, the fear of her wedding night, anxiety about disappointing her more experienced husband, the realisation she’s trapped in a relationship with someone she doesn’t want to be with, having sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, enjoying sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, the irrational jealousy of a man’s previous partners and inferiority complex that comes with that. It’s all very relatable, even though I haven’t exactly been there myself. The discovery of the ‘bloody chamber’ itself is just the culmination of a growing sense of unease and ‘wrongness’ about the husband that has been building up from the beginning. As well as bringing out these overlooked themes I also prefer Carter’s ending to the original. It’s arguably still a bit of a deus ex machina but it is a better foreshadowed one.
The next two stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both based on the story of Beauty and the Beast. Mr Lyon again stays pretty close to the original in terms of plot only updating it to an era of motorcars, while Tiger’s Bride is more of a subversion. Of the two I preferred The Tiger’s Bride, perhaps because it didn’t feel quite so familiar. The ‘Beauty’ character’s father being a compulsive gambler who loses their fortune, drags her through Europe, and finally gambles her away to ‘la Bestia’ was a refreshing twist on the kindly old man of most versions, struck by misfortune through no fault of his own. Again this story is told in first person by the heroine but she’s a much more feisty character than the narrator of The Bloody Chamber and reacts in quite different ways to their broadly similar situation, quietly refusing to be dominated by the men in her life and offering no compromises to them until they compromise themselves.
Puss-in-Boots is a very different story in many ways from the rest. It’s a comedy for one, not as gothic in tone as the other tales, and the female character stays fairly firmly on the sidelines. It’s told rather brilliantly through the eyes of Puss in Boots, which makes for great lines such as ‘I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats’ and tells the story of the trickster cat trying to secure the beautiful, married, woman his whoremongering master has fallen for. It’s a humorous, very bawdy, little story that doesn’t require thinking too seriously for.
The Erl-King and The Snow Child I’m honestly still not sure about. I know what Carter was trying to do with The Erl-King and I actually really like the concept but, for whatever reason, I found this story a lot harder than the others to get sucked into and enjoy. I think it’s one I might have to give a reread at some later date to get full enjoyment from it. Meanwhile The Snow Child is such a short and odd little vignette writing up my thoughts could only spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it – but it’s the story most of my friends studying this book had the most trouble with and I can see why.
The Lady in the House of Love then plays off vampire mythology rather than fairy tales, telling the story of Dracula’s lonely descendent stuck in her crumbling mansion unable to see the light of day, and the arrival of a bicycling soldier there on the eve of the First World War. It’s the most original of the stories and, I think, a beautiful example of vampire fiction – haunting, lonely, and gothic. Possibly not what one would really expect in a book that’s meant to be based on fairy tales, but as a lover of gothic literature as well I wasn’t complaining. It was one of the highlights of the book for me and I think would stand up well in any compilation of vampire short stories as well (in fact I spotted several people here recommending it for consideration as one of the best works of vampire literature since Dracula).
And from vampires to werewolves, the last three stories all play off Little Red Riding Hood and similar stories. The first, The Werewolf is again so short saying much at all would spoil it so I’ll content myself with saying that I liked it, but that the story seemed very familiar – though that could easily be the result of pop-culture osmosis, (this book being published in 1979 and having a fairly big impact) I think I’ve read almost identical stories in collections of folklore. The Company of Wolves is more strongly linked to the familiar Red Riding Hood tale, with the girl being lured from the path by the ‘wolf’ who beats her to her grandmother’s house. To be honest though I’ve heard so many interpretations and retellings going ‘Red Riding Hood’s really just about sex – didn’t you know? The Red Hood totally symbolises menstruation’ that I just don’t particularly care for hearing it again. Angela Carter was probably one of the first to do so and it’s possibly this story that has influenced so many others to bang on about it though so I will cut her some slack. It’s a very well written piece but for me the standout part was the first third or so, before it gets to the Red Riding Hood narrative, and is just giving lots and lots of lovely folklore-and-mythology-like anecdotes about wolves and werewolves and the stories of people who have been turned into wolves.
Wolf-Alice is the final story based, apparently, on a version of the Red Riding Hood tale I’m not familiar with, tells the story of a feral child raised by wolves. ‘Rescued’ after her adoptive mother is shot dead she goes first to a convent, where they despair at her wild ways, and then sent off as a servant for the mysterious Duke – who has no reflection and likes to cannibalise the corpses from graveyards. I had a bit of trouble trying to work out what exactly the Duke was meant to be – a pre-Dracula type vampire or werewolf perhaps, when the two were more similar and a lot less romantic, or possibly a ghoul. But in the end it doesn’t really matter – whatever he is he’s lost enough humanity that he no longer has a reflection and humanity itself is disgusted and fearful of him. The story’s not really about him anyway (I just found him fascinating) but a coming of age story for Wolf-Alice who, raised by wolves, has no understanding of either time or puberty but has to grow up and develop from a wild dog-like child into a young woman, with only her own reflection in the Dukes mirror to guide her. It’s a powerful little story, but for me not quite as good as The Bloody Chamber or The Lady of the House of Love.
Although I didn’t love every individual story in this book I think it is a great collection, well worthy of five stars, and one I am sure I will be returning to frequently when I want a short and familiar read. The sex and feminism probably isn’t for everyone, I’m ready to allow that, but I quite like a bit of intelligent feminism in my literature, especially if it’s challenging the predominantly passive role of women in fairy tales and giving them back a bit of a voice. The narrator in The Bloody Chamber may do almost exactly the same thing as she does in the traditional stories, but here there’s a sense of her being a fully realised person, not a generic woman who does what she does because women are all fundamentally the same. (less)
This was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book this...moreThis was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book this had a massive impact on my tastes and interests growing up. It also provided me with my first fictional crush in the shape of Ulysses (Odysseus - this book unfortunately adopts Roman naming for the heroes, though not the gods). As such I'm not even going to try to write an objective review here.
The book tells the stories of three legendary Greek heroes; Ulysses (Odysseus), Hercules (Heracles), and Jason. Each story is told in an almost comic book format - roughly 1-5 panels a page but no speach bubbles, the story is writen underneath each illustration in full continuous prose. This means that as well as the writing being simple and easy to understand for young reader's there's also lots of great visual imagery for younger children reading with their parents to interact with and appreciate. (My mum probably has a box somewhere of poorly rendered tracings and attempts to copy the more striking panels)
Although it's written for children it doesn't sanitise the stories any more than is really necessary - which is something I always appreciate when it comes to mythology. And as someone who sometimes handles show and tell of Egyptian and Roman objects in museums I can appreciate how hard it can be to get the balance right (hint: violence is ok, sex is not - make of that what you will). The circumstances of Hercales birth are rather glossed over, but the reason he had to do penance is not, nor is the lengths Medea will go to to for Jason. (On a sidenote how did that man think that shit wouldn't go down when he swapped her for a more politically advantageous wife? He almost deserved what he got for sheer stupidity).
After the end of each story ther's also a 'about the story' page which provides extra information on the characters, places, and mythology, as well as recomending other children's retellings of the same or similar stories (probably now out of print). It's a little simplistic but it served as a gateway into more serious Greek Mythology.
I realise this book is very old, probably quite dated, and out of print. But it was an absolute favourite growing up and deserves a bit of praise. It is single handedly down to this book that I eventually went on to do an A level in Classical Civilisations, considered doing Classics as my degree, and opted for several Ancient History modules when I eventually went down the History route instead. Although my opinions on the heroes have changed as I've read more 'original' greek and Roman works - I was so disapointed with Odysseus when I read Homer and lost a lot of respect for Jason when I read Euripides - my love for this book remains constant. The only book that arguably had anywhere near the same influence would be my picture book of King Arthur.
So though I don't expect anyone to go out and buy this book (if you even can anymore) I felt it deserved a review. And I am going to keep my Ribena stained, broken, spined, sticky paged copy and if I ever have kids (or if my sisters do) I will pass it on and hope that it inspires the same sort of passion for mythology in them too.(less)
Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectively the...more Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectively there is no way Dracula would get 5 stars. Love it as I do, it’s got some glaring flaws. The reason Dracula is regarded as a ‘classic’ isn’t because it’s a literary masterpiece on par with the greats – it’s really not – but because it’s really good at what it is, a crowd-pleasing horror, and because it helped create the popularity and features of the ‘modern vampire’. Thankfully however book reviewing is all about opinions and I can be as unobjective as I want.
I first read Dracula when I was about 12 and this was my first time going back to it. I have to admit, it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. If I read it today it would probably only get 4 stars, but nostalgia and the love of gothic novels it inspired mean I just don’t have the heart to take that star away from it. Flawed as it is, I still love it.
And there are bits that are truly deserving of 5 stars. The whole first section where Jonathan Harker is in Transylvania visiting the Count’s castle is just wonderful. Told through Jonathan’s diary, the slow realisation of what his host is and the danger he is in makes for intense reading (or listening). However it’s easy to get a spooky atmosphere going when your setting is a deserted, ancient, castle sitting atop a cliff in a foreign and superstitious land, once the action moves to England the atmosphere suffers. Whitby is windswept and beautifully grim enough that the build up to, and events following, the count’s arrival there still feel tense and scary, and for a while John Seward’s madhouse and his dealings with Renfield – a patient who believes that by eating spiders and flies he absorbs their lifeforce – is creepily compelling. But…well after the first vampire staking the book loses steam.
A lot of the tension in these first parts is tied over from the cliffhanger of Jonathan’s diary and not knowing whether he survived or not. The characters in England are not too compelling all by themselves. Harker’s fiancé Mina is alright, she’s a strong independent woman in a way that’s acceptable to the Victorians – which means she can write shorthand and use a typewriter. But then there’s her friend Lucy who is your stereotypical damsel in distress, going sleepwalking round graveyards in her nightgown, and the three almost interchangeable men who fancy her. Dr. John Seward, already mentioned, owns a madhouse and is one of the main narrators – the story being epistolary, told through letters and diary entries – Quincey Morris is a Texan who knows a lot about guns and uses amusing ‘slang’ but is actually quite fun, but Arthur Holmwood, the rich son of a British Lord, is a total snorefest. Guess which one Lucy goes for…
It’s all a bit too coincidental and neatly connected to take entirely seriously – Jonathan Harker is engaged to Mina – who is best friends with Dracula’s first victim – who turned down a proposal from John Seward who lives next door to Dracula’s new house – and was taught by Van Helsing, who is the only person in the Victorian world to recognise and know how to kill a vampire. But well, I don’t think it’s a book you’re meant to take entirely seriously. One thing I did like about the characters though; these blokes manage to stay friends and not get pissy at each other after Lucy makes her choice – they respect her decision, stop pursuing her romantically, and stay friends with both each other and her without being all grumpy about it. Can you imagine that happening in a modern vampire novel?
Up until the first staking though the gothic atmosphere of the first section remains, if in slightly lesser form, as John and Van Helsing struggle to save Lucy’s life from her ‘mysterious wasting disease’ and near constant blood loss every night. After it’s been established what’s causing it however the book slows down to a bit of a crawl. There are lots of conversations where the characters inform each other of facts the reader already knows and seemingly have endless discussions about what to do without actually doing very much. Instead of trying to hunt Dracula down it becomes a ‘destroy them all’ quest surrounding some of the objects he brought with him from Transylvania. Also while John Seward, Quincey, and Arthur all love to gush about Lucy, Van Helsing seems to have a raging hard-on for Mina (and I am so sorry to have given you that mental image). After he meets her he barely seems to go two sentences without praising her in some way and instead of being ‘Mina’ she’s always some variation of ‘that wonderful woman’. It gets a bit old after a while and I kinda wished the characters would stop praising each other by the time I reached the half way point.
Eventually though, the stakes get raised again with a threat to ‘wonderful wonderful Miss Mina’ and we get the gang finally heading out to take on Dracula himself. They’re no Buffy though so don’t expect too much in the way of action and the hunt, like the middle section, tends to drag on a bit before the rather sudden conclusion.
I’ve made it sound really bad now I’m afraid…it’s not. It’s a good fun book and I have a lot of affection for it – I wouldn’t give it 5 stars if I didn’t – but I’m not blind to its flaws and don’t think they should be glossed over when writing a review. The story starts off very strong and gets increasingly weak, but there’s still enough to sustain it, and no one can doubt how influential a book it is. Dracula is a very compelling, if simplistic, villain and I would take him over a certain other vampire who isn’t killed by sunlight any day.(less)
So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And f...more 5 stars
So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And fuck me, if I don’t completely love it. Favourite book of 2012 by a huge margin. I can’t remember what made me pick this book up in the shop – probably the gorgeous cover and the fact the pages are edged in the same blue as the cover design (I’m a sucker for a pretty book) – but I am really glad I did. This is the reason I persist on ‘wasting my money’ impulse buying interesting looking books that I’ve never even heard of before; you might pick up a few duds but occasionally you stumble across something glorious that you’d never have been led to otherwise.
And now I’m left in the awkward position of trying to write a review for a book I totally adored. I’ve heard other people saying reviewing books you loved is harder than books you hated and I never really believed them – but it is. Whilst I loved this book it probably isn’t for everybody – in fact I’m sure it isn’t. And I know from experience that the quickest way you can get someone to dislike a book and notice its flaws is to build up their expectations by raving about it before they’ve read it… Oh welll…here goes…
We, The Drowned is a hard book to describe; at the surface level it’s just ‘the lives and adventures of the inhabitants of a Danish port town over a hundred years’ but that’s not really what it’s about. I tried describing it to my dad as ‘a Danish One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the magical realism and about sailors instead of a gigantic Latin American family’ but that description strips One Hundred Years of Solitude of its key features and does both books a disservice. Both are brilliant books, both deal with the history of a place by telling the story of the people who lived there over multiple generations – but apart from that they’re completely different beasts and liking/hating one will not mean you have the same opinions about the other.
So I’ll try again… We, the Drowned is a massive book, 690 pages spanning 100 years and 3/4 (depending on your opinion of Klara) central characters. I agree with another reviewer that the story, though divided into four parts actually feels more like three different books that run into each other:
The first part was all about Laurids Madsen the man ‘who went up to heaven and came down thanks to his boots’, who starts off as a daredevil prankster but comes back from war with Germany with what would now be diagnosed as post traumatic stress. And it’s no wonder; the violence in the book is brutal and him and his companions are sailors, not soldiers. Combat on a sailing ship isn’t the bloodless carnage of something like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s bloody and nasty; people soil themselves and go down screaming and sobbing like children, if someone gets a cannon shot to the head they don’t comically pick their skull back up and get on, their whole face is blown off. If they’re really unlucky they’ll survive it and go home to a family that doesn’t recognise them and doesn’t want to because it would mean acknowledging the person they loved before the war no longer exists. I haven’t read much stuff set on sailing ships beyond the odd Robert Louis Stevenson, but the battle seemed very real to me. Jensen doesn’t go overboard with description and purple prose but I could vividly see and imagine the whole thing. That said, I don’t know how well it measures up to a Hornblower or Master and Commander I’ll add them to my reading list.
Since it’s on the blurb it’s no spoiler to say that Laurids leaves Marstal soon afterwards, and the majority of this part is about his son Albert growing up without him and his later quest to find his father as soon as he’s old enough to go to sea. It’s old-fashioned adventure on the high seas stuff – shrunken heads, murders, cannibals, pearls, pokey little bars, brutal first mates, and ineffectual captains. But between the sailing and adventure there’s Marstal. Marstal is as much of a character as any of the central characters, maybe even more, not only does it ground all the characters into some sort of context but it grows and changes throughout the novel. In a stroke of genius all the Marstal scenes, or scenes where there are a lot of Marstalers present are told in the first person plural ‘we’. This ‘we’ is never acknowledged as a named character, there is no one narrator, but is the collective consciousness of the town itself: for Lauids this ‘we’ was the Marstal sailors who had been recruited for war alongside him, for Albert it is his peers, the Marstal schoolboys. I’ll admit it confused me at first but I grew to love it very quickly, it created a sort of understanding of the town and its people and a sense of inclusion that third person would simply have been too impersonal to portray. Without it the Marstal bits might have seemed like the ‘boring’ parts between adventures but, if anything, I almost came to love them more by the end of the book.
Which is good because the next portion of the book is entirely set there. After the Treasure Island-like adventures of his youth the book skips straight on to Albert as an old man living in Marstal. Although told in the ‘we’ it is really from Albert’s eyes that we see the approach and then the horrors of World War I and the effect it has on the town. And it’s chilling. As a history student, it’s embarrassing to admit but I’d never really looked at WWI from the standpoint of a neutral country and, though I’ve been taught over and over again about the horrors of the trenches, somehow no one ever mentions the war at sea and the sinking of ships. Here the trenches are absent, the suffering of the front lines barely noted, even the losses at sea are distant from the lives of people on the land – life goes on as normal. But, through Albert, we hear about the Marstal ships being shot down and sunk by players in a war they were not even part of. It’s a beautiful and depressing portrayal of war and the effect it has on people and places. As well as the war this part of the book is about growing old – the age of sail is all but dead and the world Albert knew has changed almost beyond recognition. Watching Albert come to grips with this, and the ways in which he deals with his lessening importance within the town is just as powerful, in its way, as the depiction of the distant war.
The third part takes us back to the sea with Knud Erik, a fatherless boy Albert mentored as a child, and his mother Klara. Knud Erik wants nothing more than to be a sailor like both Albert and his father. Klara, meanwhile hates the sea for taking her husband, and so many others, and leaving the women of Marstal in a constant state of grief and uncertainty. She’s the first major female character in the book, and I could take a lot of issues with her but, though she claims to speak for ‘the women’, in the end she’s just about well enough developed that she’s only really speaking for herself, something that becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on. I’m still not sure what I think of her, I certainly understand her, and I appreciate her growing into a strong woman who doesn’t use sex as a tool buuut…well, there’s just something not entirely likable about her. Despite the tension it causes, Knud Erik, does of course become a sailor. First sailing on sailing ships as a teenager; having adventures reminiscent of his mentor Albert’s – cruel first mates, vicious storms, murder at sea, icebergs. Then, once the age of the sailing ship is truly over, on steam and then mechanical ships, serving on the allied merchant convoys of World War II.
This again was an entirely different perspective on the War than anything I’d ever read about it before. What the ships docked in London did during air raids is something I’d never really thought about. Nor the horrors of the ‘keep going, don’t stop to rescue anyone’ order given to convoys when one of their number got struck by a u-boat. It gave me a new appreciation for the men who risked their lives, without lifting weapons, to help in the war effort.
All in all a brilliant book – I haven’t mentioned half of the bits I would want to talk about for fear of spoilers. It’s bleak and depressing and certainly not for everyone, but I loved it. Some bits were predictable – I knew what would happen to Karo the moment he appeared, same with the ‘free men’ in the hold and several other characters, but it didn’t seem ‘predictable’ so much as ‘inevitable, given how the characters around them are sketched’ and, instead of rolling my eyes when it happened I was gripped and unable to tear myself away from my book as I watching the build up and then the fall out. Other bits weren’t so predictable; the first ‘romance’ especially left me reeling with an ‘I should have expected that but I really didn't’.
It had its flaws of course – sometimes characters we’d been introduced to reappeared in unlikely places – but nothing too unforgivable. There wasn’t much chance for female characters to shine and the one that did appear as a sailor late in the book I was unconvinced by, but I think that’s the nature of the setting – women weren’t given chances to shine. The adventures were, for the most part, gripping and the Marstal parts were beautiful and really gave a sense of the community there beyond just the main few characters – it wasn’t just ‘main character, his immediate family, and some other people to bulk up the population count’ who lived there – the town was a living breathing character in itself. The use of ‘we’ for the parts set in Marstal worked incredibly well, and wasn’t something I’d really seen done before. The perspectives through which both World War I and II were told were unusual but even more powerful for that.
All in all I just kinda loved it and will be on the lookout for anything else written by Carsten Jensen from now on.(less)