Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (Philip Pullman)

I love fairy tales. I cannot get enough of them no matter what I do--I love the Fables graphic novels and Once Upon a Time (which is a pretty good TV show that I suspect ripped off the basic ideas of Fables). Some of my favorite Disney movies are fairy-tale based (Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty). There is something so wonderful to me about fairy tales.

I also love Philip Pullman. The first time I read The Golden Compass, I was eight. It enchanted and fascinated me and captured my attention in a way that only Harry Potter had been doing at that point in my life. So when I found out that Philip Pullman was putting out a fairy tale collection, I couldn't contain my excitement.

I got the opportunity to read an eARC of the book from NetGalley, so thanks to the publisher and the website for setting me up with the book. I unfortunately took a long time to start the book and then eventually finish it, so I apologize for this not really being pre-book-release. Whoops.

Anyway, I loved the book. Philip Pullman is a great writer and does a great job handling the fairy tales--he doesn't get too modern (except for a few strange instances, like when one character tells another that she is "dressed to kill" or another in which the king orders his men to blow up and bomb a character to prevent him from coming to the castle, which strike me as strange anachronisms that gum up the flow of the stories) and he also doesn't get too antiquated. My favorite part is the short commentary that Pullman gives at the end of each tale--he includes the Aarne-Thompson-Uther number, which is very exciting for me, as well as relevant, comparable versions of tales in collections of other folklores (mostly Russian, British and Italian collections). The commentaries themselves are delightful insights into the author's feelings on the tale (which I always find fascinating) or the process of writing it, whether he left it alone or added something for the sake of the plot or borrowed from a similar tale somewhere else; it's a great behind-the-scenes look at the book.

The collection of 50 stories itself is pretty fantastic. There are some great stories I'd never experienced before ("The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers", "Godfather Death", "The Juniper Tree" and "The Nixie of the Millpond" stick out, but there are many others) as well as all the classic tales you might expect, like "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Snow White" and an interesting version of "Beauty and the Beast" called "The Singing, Springing Lark"--it's surprising how few of the tales are actually that popular; Pullman includes all the major players, and there aren't that many: less than 10. There are a few of the stories that are fairly short or different versions of the same story (I'm thinking "One Eye, Two Eyes, Three Eyes", which is basically Cinderella with a strange fixation on eyeballs), and I question their inclusion, but I think it's good to see how similar some of the tales are. It's important to take the book in pieces or the similar nature and themes (wrong is done, people end up married) sort of numb your mind. This is, of course, a criticism of the nature of fairy tales and not the book I read; Philip Pullman is no more capable of solving these problems than anyone else.

If you at all interested in fairy tales and would like to read a collection, I have no reservations in recommending this clean, compact version. It was truly a delight.

My Rating: 4.5/5
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm on Goodreads
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Monday, November 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)

I have had several encounters with metafiction this year, a style (genre? form? I'm not sure what it is, exactly) that I find fascinating and so full of promise. I was sometimes disappointed and other times very ambivalent, and so when I decided to read Cloud Atlas (in preparation for the movie), I was not sure how to feel. Excited? Nervous? Bored?

The experimental, metafictional quality of Mitchell's novel is that we get six different stories, which interrupt one another and connect back to each other. This makes more sense with an example: the first story is given the title page "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing", which is the diary of a man sailing from islands in the Pacific to Hawaii. This narrative interrupts itself to start a new one, called "Letters from Zedelghem", the epistles of a musically-inclined young man who starts working as an amanuensis to a dying composer. While living with this musician and his family, the main character (Robert Frobisher) discovers a book in the library called The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

And so on. This repeats six times, with the final story running without interruption; after its course is run, the other five close themselves up so that the last section of the whole novel is Adam Ewing's journal again. I was afraid that this would be gimmicky, because even trying to describe it makes it sound so. It's easy to think that David Mitchell is going to rely on this technique as a crutch, that it's going to be the only thing interesting about the book, but have no fear!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)

My Quest for Good Literature continues. How exciting. I was wary about The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because a lot of the positive reviews have said things along the lines of "this book changed my life/my outlook on life/my perspective on the universe" and so on.
I am not a fan of people saying things like this. The concept of art changing someone's life sort of frightens me: why isn't your life more stable? Why are you so easily manipulated? I am all for books providing a new understanding or a different way of looking at something, because good art can sometimes achieve this. Maybe it's just the phrasing of this concept that bothers me. I don't know. Regardless, I was concerned that I would hate this book because it's too "life-changing" for me to appreciate (like The Alchemist).

Milan Kundera's book is about Sabina, an artist/mistress, her lover Franz, another lover Tomas and Tomas' wife, Tereza, before, during and after the Prague Spring. Tomas is a man who loves to sleep around (at one point in the novel, he claims to have slept with over 200 women), and after his disastrous first marriage, he develops a serious fear of commitment, vowing to never sleep in bed with anyone next to him ever again. Unfortunately, one of his "conquests", a waitress named Tereza, feels unwell and ends up staying the night sleeping next to Tomas. When he wakes up, she is still sleeping, his hand firmly enlaced with her own.

And here is where the book, in my opinion, does not work. The reason that this book is so "life-changing" is because of all of the philosophy that Kundera (over)stuffs the book with. Every time something happens, every time a character dreams something, every time something symbolizes something, the author/narrator (it's unclear if the first-person narrator is the author) jumps in to give a few paragraphs (or even pages) of philosophical explanation. In the case of the enlaced hands, we get a musing on how this is symbolic of Tomas' greatest fear, commitment, along with an explanation of why it represents commitment. I found these ramblings (although that isn't the right word, as they're more purposeful than ramblings) occasionally insulting, because I felt like I should have been able to pick up on the secondary meaning on my own (and I almost always did). There is a lot of philosophy about "lightness of being", which is without a doubt an interesting concept. However, I got tired of it by the end of the book because of how often it was explained and represented over and over again in various dreams and symbols and events of the characters' lives.

But back to the plot. Tomas marries Tereza and then continues to see all of his mistresses (including Sabina), and the marriage between the two is generally unhappy (one of the main points of the book focuses on love vs. sex and in Tomas' life we see both). They move away from the Czech Republic, back to the Czech Republic, get in trouble with the government, move to the countryside and eventually die when they are crushed (by something heavy, because heaviness and lightness are important). Sabina, one of Tomas' lovers, eventually meets Franz and leaves him just as he plans to leave his wife for her. She goes to America to paint freely without censorship (which leads to a terribly overwrought discussion about "kitsch"). Franz winds up with a young student and marches in protest in Vietnam and ends up paralyzed and dead in the arms of his original wife.

Kundera does a great job of portraying his characters. They are perfectly flawed, and it can be frustrating to watch them screw up again and again, but in the end it is so satisfying because they are exactly like real people. As a historical novel, too, this is wonderful, because Kundera's overexplanation comes in handy when he's providing background information about life in the Czech Republic during Soviet times, making readers genuinely understand the sort of fear and oppression that a Communist regime imposed upon its people.

The philosophical tangents were for me the only bad part of the book, but did not overpower those things about the novel that made it great: the historical representation and the engaging character development. While I'm not sure if I will ever read another Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is certainly interesting enough to recommend to anyone brave enough to try it.

My rating: 4/5
The Unbearable Lightness of Being on Goodreads
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