On Children’s Books, February Reads and Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt*

*Not in that order.

Tuck Everlasting: I had always thought that a film whose crowning glory is its beautiful narration must have been a really good book. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt has been on my to-read list for a long time, ever since happy afternoons spent watching the feel-good movie. (I will never get over how pretty Alexis Bledel looks in the movie.) Tuck Everlasting is a strange tale about immortality and its consequences.

The Foster House is a towering structure that lies at the edge of a forest, and the beginnings of a small village. The only important family in the village, the Fosters own the forest. It’s a mysterious wood that people would rather stay away from, anyway. The Fosters are a very proper family, and Winifred Foster is a lonely child. A ten-year-old who is not even allowed to play in peace in her own front yard, Winnie decides one day to run away from home. 
In the forest, Winnie meets a handsome young boy. He’s sitting beside a spring drinking water, when she comes across him. Thirsty herself, Winnie tries to drink from the spring. But he forbids her. His mother arrives after him, and before she knows it, Winnie finds herself kidnapped by the strangest family – who call themselves the Tucks.
The Tucks tell Winnie a story – about a spring that gives eternal life to the drinker and a curse that entraps those who drink from it. The Tucks claim to be over a hundred years old. And now that Winifred knows their secret, they refuse to let her go. And as strange as this story is, here’s the oddest part of the affair – it is with the Tucks that Winnie feels the most comforted, and she has no wish to return home. But the Tucks don’t know that they are being followed and Winnie has no clue what life has in store for her if she’s found.

Like the movie, it is a feel-good story, quite easy to devour in a single sitting. It is a neatly wrapped story, with a tidy bow atop. Thing resolve marvellously at  the end, so much so that you almost wonder, was there any conflict at all?

On Children’s Book Choices – Children these days have a much more vibrant choice of books to read than I did. Now I don’t know if this is city-, country- or simply individual-specific; but I have a feeling there did not use to be quite as many books about rat-burgers or underpants back in the day. When I recommend books to children, I try to find a balance between the whimsy and the “life lesson” for lack of a better word. Recommendations that have worked wonders so far include Lemony Snicket, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling (need I even say?) And as a teacher, trying to justify my choices, I think that what ties these together that each of these books, though child-like and playful and fun, introduce a new string of thought to the reader’s mind – have a deeper theme, a message, an idea, a perspective.

And Tuck Everlasting does that beautifully. The other day, I was discussing with a few of my classes whether it makes sense to them that books like Harry Potter are banned in certain schools either because they promote witchcraft (which, not being Christians ourselves, we can be coolly objective about) or because they have themes a bit too adult for a young age. The responses were varied – one child said there was no need to expose children to things beyond their understanding as misunderstanding are worse than naivete. Another was convinced that anything that will be discovered eventually, may be discovered from a safe source right now.

The conversation – stemming from our read of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – took a turn to the topic of death, and consequently, immortality. When did my dear children first become aware of the concept of death? I made it a point not to come out and say this in so many words, of course, because there are still some faces in the class with that touch of rare innocence that can be so easily lost. And yet, it was a discussion worth the effort, for it brought out precious perspectives… is there a right age to find out about death? Would you tell your kid sister about it? Can you imagine what Dumbledore meant when he said… “To a well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”?

The kids discussed the pros and cons of immortality and that is when I found myself talking about Tuck Everlasting. I think books are the perfect window to the unknown, or to that which cannot be well grappled with. They do not rush you into anything, like a movie, which can surprise you and cannot be unseen. You can set your own pace with a book and choose your takeaway. Tuck Everlasting would be a beautiful book to recommend a child who has just discovered mortality. I want to try and procure the book for our school library. Here’s an excerpt:

“Dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”

One adorable response to the question of the desirability of immortality – maybe if you’re a vampire, it will be cool, because then you won’t be so depressed that everyone you used to know is now dead. Because you will be evil. (Well, if only it were that simple, said Spike, Angel, Stefan, Bill and what’s-his-shiny-face.)

February Reads: I did not read the planned four books, but have still somehow had an eventful two months of the new year. Apart from Americanah, which I reviewed, I have read Tuck Everlasting, Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett, A Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket and came across and fell in love with The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. Currently immersed in two books – Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Many reviews coming up, soon I hope. 

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

People where you live, the little prince said, grow five thousand roses in one garden… Yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose… It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.

For years I was convinced I had read this story and did not like it one bit. As it turns out, the story I had been thinking of was The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde, which I do find unpardonably boring. The moment I realized The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a novella, described by many as a children’s fantasy that serves as an adult’s spiritual fable, I wanted to pick it up. This was about a year ago. I read it today as the first book for my favourite not-challenge, Once Upon a Time, an annual event in its ninth year, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.

Summary: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth where he meets our narrator, a pilot crash-landed in the middle of an endless dessert. 

My thoughts: The Goodreads reviews of this book all seem to have one word in common, “metaphor.” I hate to be redundant and talk about what a wonderful allegory The Little Prince presents. Most of you have probably read this book and already know all about it. And every new reader of the book will eventually end up on the author’s life story, to make sense of the allusions and connect the metaphorical autobiographical dots.  I would recommend you this book mostly because almost everyone who reads it finds in it something to love. It is precious, and honestly, a chunk of its charm lies in its slim size. It demands little of your time, give it that. The thing that I truly like about this book is its sincere duality, of both intention and style.
My fascination with children’s books fascinates me. I assume that the fact that children’s books can be enjoyed by adults is uncontested. According to this article in The Guardian,
“One explanation may be the way in which they (children’s books) are read. They become part of our emotional autobiographies, acquiring associations and memories, more like music than prose.  Another explanation may lie in the fact that children’s books are designed with re-reading in mind. For all children’s writers are conscious that our books may be re-read by children themselves.”

I thought that reading The Little Prince would be like getting wholly engrossed in a Roald Dahl book at twenty or delightedly revisiting one of my childhood favourite Enid Blyton stories. It was nothing like that. It may be difficult to write children’s books that would give pleasure to grown-ups too. Authors like Neil Gaiman are good at that sort of thing.
The Little Prince on the other hand is something entirely else. It is not a simple children’s book that adults would enjoy as well. What makes The Little Prince unique is that it contains in its pages two different stories at once – one for children and another for grown-ups. It reminds me of my experience reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, a series of books so adult in its themes and messages, it made me wonder what I would have made of it as a kid. And yet, I am sure, had I read the series when I was twelve, I would have found lovely treasures in the books quite separate from the ones my adult-self found.
I don’t know what little-Priya would have made of The Little Prince. Young-me would likely have loved the illustrations, thrilled at the absurd planets, their whimsical inhabitants and the talking foxes, enjoyed the reaffirmation of the importance of being a child. Meanwhile, on the other side of time, today, catching my eye are little fractions of well-composed truth in the writing, like reaching success by “the inspiring force of urgent necessity.” I shake my head at the many droll depictions of empty human life. I mull over coming-of-age, the loss of innocence and our place in the great big picture. I contemplate the futility of that exact train of thought… and with the very same logical disinterest the book mocks, find myself dissecting those pesky metaphors!
The book never sounds overtly preachy, that helps. The narrator in his straightforward manner rarely expresses his opinions on the lessons the little prince teaches him. The book remains staunchly bizarre, surreal, to its very end. The original French must be beautifully written, I am guessing, from the admirably seamless translation by Katherine Woods. I should learn French. Out of curiosity, how exactly do you pronounce the author’s name? Now that I have read him, it may be time to stop calling him MumbledeMumble-Mumble.
I am happy to have finally read the book. That said, I will not read the book again. I doubt that there is any new insight to be gained from another read, which I must say, is not true of Philip Pullman and his complex constructions. I do however see myself revisiting nice passages, and forcing the book on all my future young-acquaintances, if only as guinea-pigs to satisfy my curiosity about how a child would react to the incongruously dark ending.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Summary: The story is set partly in Lud-in-the-Mist, the capital city of the country of Dorimare and a port at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dapple has its origin in Fairyland, which lies out of sight from Dorimare, across the Debatable Hills. In the olden days, when Dorimare was filled with noblemen and ruled by Duke Aubrey, fairies were revered, and fairy fruit was enjoyed by the people of Dorimare. 
But then the rift between the dukes and the poor began to close, there arose a middle class, who rebelled and expelled Duke Aubrey from Dorimare and the noblemen were no longer the authority. The chaotic beauty of all that was Fairy was driven out and the Law was created, eating fairy fruit became a crime and anything related to Fairyland was unspeakable. So much, in fact, that the worst thing you could call someone was “Son of a Fairy!”

But there are rumours, of fiddlers and tricksters wooing young women, of the dead crossing over to the other side and of Duke Aubrey being alive even centuries later in Fairyland. Our story starts when Nathaniel Chanticleer, the mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, finds out that his son Ranulph may have eaten fairy fruit. Enraged that the nasty fruit was smuggled into Dorimare, worried about his son, and secretly fearing his own doubts about the realness of reality, Master Nathaniel finds himself entangled in old horrific mysteries.

My thoughts: This is my fifth read for Once Upon a Time VIIILud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees is not so much a fantasy, as it is an exploration of slippery truths and the jagged borders of reality, of death, music, and psychedelic dreamery; all packaged as an intriguing murder mystery. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Believe me, it is. I highly recommend this book; so does Neil Gaiman, whose recommendations have always been entirely worth my time – as this will be worth yours. Read it!
The setting of Lud-in-the-Mist reminded me alternately of Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. But it isn’t entirely like either of the books. For one, the story is a lot more engaging than the two, it is much faster paced than the former and much shorter than the latter – one thing they share is the very gaslamp-fantasy-like Englishness. 
The descritpions are vivid, mesmerizing and the frequent pearly drops of wisdom come as a pleasant surprise. This is what I’m talking about:
Reason is only a drug, and as such, its effects are never permanent. But, like the juice of the poppy, it often gives a temporary relief. 
We have the misfortune of living in a country that marches with the unknown; and that is apt to make the fancy sick. Though we laugh at old songs and old yarns, nevertheless, they are the yarn with which we weave our picture of the world.
But, for once, let us look things straight in the face, and call them by their proper names. Fairyland, for instance… no one has been there within the memory of man. For generations it has been a forbidden land. In consequence, curiosity, ignorance, and unbridled fancy have put their heads together and concocted a country of golden trees hanging with pearls and rubies, the inhabitants of which are immortal and terrible through unearthly gifts – and so on. But – and in this I am in no way subscribing to a certain antiquary of ill odour – there is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy. Think of the Dapple, or the Dawl, when they roll the sunset towards the east. Think of an autumn wood, or a hawthorn in May. A hawthorn in May – there’s a miracle for you! Who would ever have dreamed that that gnarled stumpy old tree had the power to do that? Well, all these things are familiar sights, but what should we think if never having seen them we read a description of them, or saw them for the first time? A golden river! Flaming trees! Trees that suddenly break into flower! For all we know, it may be Dorimare that is Fairyland to the people across the Debatable Hills.
The character names are a nightmare, though. While I suppose all fantasy has its cute and quirky nomenclature, especially these small country stories, the likes of Nathaniel Chanticleer, Endymion Leer, Moonlove Honeysuckle, Primrose Crabapple and Polydore Vigil send my head spinning. But if you think about it, it’s not the worst ‘bad’ a book can have, is it? Like I said, read the book. 

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

Searching for “books like Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis” led me to Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, because it is based on a Norwegian fairy tale which is  a Cupid and Psyche story and then I read a fabulous review on Vishy’s blog of East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris, another retelling of the same myth. I was all set to buy it, except: I didn’t find a Kindle version. Finally, I read an altogether different retelling, turns out there are many. But: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George was, after all this effort, almost a disappointment.

I don’t like to write “bad reviews” and honestly, this book made a quick breezy read that, on any other day, I would have found pretty good. My high expectations got in the way.

The Story: The book starts with a young girl, an unwanted last child. She’s called “pika (which apparently just means girl) by her poor family and Lass by her favourite brother Hans Peter. Of all her brothers, Lass is drawn to Hans Peter because like her, he doesn’t quite belong in the family. Being a grown-up, he’s supposed to be out in the world; instead, he’s returned from a voyage, somewhat broken, and stays at home carving weird symbols out of wood.

Years later, a polar bear, an “isbjørn” shows up at their house. He asks Lass to accompany him to his palace and she reluctantly agrees. The deal is: she must stay with him for a whole year and in return, the bear will make her family rich. At the palace, Lass spends her days in the library, chatting with the servants (from fawns to salamanders) and dining with the isbjørn.

But the ice palace is full of mysteries. Every night, a man slips into Lass’s room and sleeps on her bed, slinking away each morning. The walls are covered with symbols like the ones Hans Peter carves. Slowly, Lass discovers that the isbjørn and the servants of the palace are under the curse of a troll princess, and she must do what she can to save them.

“Love? What do you know about love?” 
“It’s at the heart of every story,” Rollo said with authority. “If humans could avoid falling in love, you would never get yourselves into any trouble.” 

My thoughts: I like the plot and the folksy atmosphere right from the first page. The it’s-so-cold,-you-can’t-feel-yourself wintry details are exotic for someone forever on the verge of melting in the heat of India. And the frequent references to Norwegian sayings and customs, bits of the local language here and there definitely go a long way in creating the mood. But that’s where my likes end.

The writer mentions in her acknowledgments that she fell in love with the letter “ø” which led to this book. I love the use of language in books, it adds an extra something, a feel of the place. I have no idea how most of the words were supposed to sound – but I figured the “ø” is like the German “ö” (correct me if I’m wrong) It was fun relating the words to English or the legends to ones you know. But for me the book does not manage to go beyond a sort of crush on the Norwegian culture. Sure, considerable research must have gone into the book – but it has no point other than too ooh and aah over this Norwegian folktale.

In the Till We Have Faces, Lewis takes the Eros and Psyche myth and tells it from the point of view of the apparently jealous sister and plays out his version of the events. There is something to learn from the retelling.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is just a fairy tale expanded with descriptions of ice and dialogue. The characters are one dimensional at best. They make choices without any thought about the repercussions. Lass lets her isbjørn kill a bear, so that her hunter brother can say he did it. The isbjørn promises the bear, who by the way is pleading not to be killed, that his soul will go to heaven for his sacrifice. For Lass, who understands and empathizes with animals, this is enough. She lets servants die for her unquenchable curiousity and only ‘feels bad’ about it afterwards. She lets the man who slips into her bed every night carry her back into bed when she tries to get away and only protests with a ‘this is silly’. I get it, all these instances are okay in every fairy tale, but that’s not what George claims to have written. She has tried to make her story more than a straightforward fairy tale by adding emotions and thoughts in some convenient places.

The book feels like a half-baked idea. You’re told the lass and the isbjørn have conversations over dinner and they like each other’s company, but the author never takes the effort to show us one of these scenes. When the lass goes off to rescue her prince, there’s no mention why she’s doing it – no gradual falling in love that a proper romance demands. Wherever adding her own pieces of plot to the story is required, the author conveniently falls back on the formulaic fairy tale. I suppose the only thing different from the original fairy tale is Hans Peter’s thread of story. And while it is neatly tied up in the end, it’s wonky along the way.

I was discussing this book with a friend and she told me that that is what young adult literature is. But I don’t accept that! I don’t read a lot of YA, but I resent the assumption that YA implies underdeveloped characters and simplistic writing. For me, the problem with the book is that what one looks for in a fairy tale itself is far different from what one wants from a retelling of a fairy tale – and the author seems not to have realized that.

Do you read YA? You don’t agree with my friend, do you? And what about retellings? Is a rewording the same as a retelling for you? This, sadly, wasn’t enough for me.

I read this for the Once Upon a Time Challenge

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I read this for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.
I am completely sure only about one thing when it comes to this book, and it is this: I would not have been quite as charitable as I am now had it not been for my never-ending exams and lack of good books and sleep. So with that disclaimer out of the way: I LOVE IT. The Princess Bride by William Goldman needs to be added to that list of the most unique books I’ve ever read.
Summary (from Goodreads) What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince of all time and he turns out to be…well…a lot less than the man of her dreams?

As a boy, William Goldman claims, he loved to hear his father read the S. Morgenstern classic, The Princess Bride. But as a grown-up he discovered that the boring parts were left out of good old Dad’s recitation, and only the “good parts” reached his ears. Now Goldman does Dad one better. He’s reconstructed the “Good Parts Version” to delight wise kids and wide-eyed grownups everywhere.
What’s it about? Fencing. Fighting. True Love. Strong Hate. Harsh Revenge. A Few Giants. Lots of Bad Men. Lots of Good Men. Five or Six Beautiful Women. Beasties Monstrous and Gentle. Some Swell Escapes and Captures. Death, Lies, Truth, Miracles, and a Little Sex. In short, it’s about everything.
My summary: And you’d think that’s all you need to know about this book to not be utterly disappointed, and it is (because that, having been taken right out of the book, should give an idea about the kind of book it is) but let me just spell it out for you anyway (because some Goodreads reviews suggest that the reader hadn’t quite figured it out from the blurb.) The Princess Bride is comic fantasy. So think Discworld, not Lord of the Rings.
Goldman’s “good parts” abridgment starts with the beautiful Buttercup realizing she’s in love with the stable boy Westley. He loves her back but wants to go to America to earn a fortune and has been preparing himself for just that. He does leave, with a promise to come back (but he doesn’t) and she promises never to to fall in love again (and so she doesn’t.) But then the Prince of Florin, where Buttercup lives, needs to get married before his father, the King, dies. And Prince Humperdinck (seriously) chooses Buttercup (more or less, they make a deal to get married, when he tells her the choice is that or death. He, of course, expects no love and she doesn’t offer any.) For a long time Buttercup trains to be a princess, until, right before her wedding she is kidnapped by three men: a Spaniard, who is good with the sword, a short, bald, conniving Sicilian and a giant of a man who likes rhymes. The Kingdom of Florin assumes it was their neighbour Guilder trying to mess up the Prince’s wedding (which is obviously wasn’t, when have fairy tales ever been so simple? Humperdinck, who has a hunting fetish, has bad-guy written all over him.) But then someone, a mysterious man in all black with a black mask fights all three kidnappers and rescues Buttercup from them, and you know who he turns out to be, don’t you?
My thoughts: It promised everything, and it did have a lot of everything – adventure, true love, to-the-death kind of hate, mind blowing characters with long back-stories and a lot of comedy. Then I reached a point, where I felt: um, sure, I mean, it’s great, it’s adventure, but it’s not exactly fantasy. I mean, where’s the magic? And BAM there was magic. And then I felt: whoa, this book is it. Of course, the book did have its very own non-fairy-tale message and it means a lot – I think that’s the moral books should teach kids, instead of mollifying darker tales into sweet nothings. 
But what I really liked was the structure of the book. It took some getting used to. The book is written by a reader. As the reader and the writer of the book, Goldman tells us the story and then tells us what he thought of the story at the same time. There are a lot of asides in the book, many parentheses, which tell us why Goldman added this or why he cut this part out, and that makes it different from every other book you’ve read. It’s an amazing technique, I have to say. Because essentially, this book is not about The Princess Bride at all. It’s about stories and what makes them endlessly fascinating. A young sick boy listening to his Dad narrate a book to him is bound to associate the book with that event and the feelings of abandon and excitement it created in him for the rest of his life.
I have had so many people rudely dismiss me over the years for liking fiction with a snarky, “But it’s so pointless” and I could come up with forty uses of fiction in retort. But the fact remains, you read fiction because it is fun. There would not have been quite so many legends, myths and folktales had story-telling not brought such pure pleasure. So, it boils down to what it means to write good fiction, doesn’t it? It should be engaging. Good fiction will make you cast off your grown-up need to learn something out of everything and go ahead and have innocent childish fun, already! And that’s what Goldman gives you with this book. Takes you back to the days when you’d throw aside all work, dive mind-first into a book and swim lazily in the pool of awesomeness that is a well told story.

I mean, Morgenstern (who is really nobody, but supposedly the guy who wrote this huge book that Goldman abridged) called his original version of The Princess Bride, S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure and literary scholars later told Goldman that is was about politics and satire and social commentary – but only pompous literary scholars would claim that that is what makes good books good. Because for me, how amazingly interesting (note how interesting doesn’t have to mean ‘happy’) a book is decides how much I love it. If it gets trite and boring, if fiction conveys a message before it tells a story, it’s magic is lost on me.
What about you? Why do you read fiction? Have you read this? And the movie: should I go to great lengths to acquire it? I’ve heard it’s better than the book…

Disney’s Beauty and The Beast

When I was a kid, I had this beautiful Disney picture book of Beauty and The Beast. I realized I’d never seen the movie version of Beauty and The Beast (I mean the Disney one, of course – animation is the only way to watch fairy tales, for me.) So I decided to watch it as part of the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, Quest on Screen. Anything that falls in broad genres of fantasy, folklore, fairy tale and mythology counts and Beauty and the Beast definitely fits at least two of those.

If you know the story, you can skip down to what I thought!

Story: Once upon a time, a spoiled, selfish and unkind Prince was cursed by an enchantress for his arrogance. As punishment, he was transformed into a hideous Beast and his castle, and all who lived there were placed under a curse. Ashamed of his monstrous form,
the Beast concealed himself inside his castle. The only thing that could save him was an enchanted
rose, which would bloom until his 21st year. If he could learn to love another,
and earn her love in return, by the time the last petal fell, then the spell
would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As
the years passed, he fell into despair, and lost all hope. For who could ever
learn to love a Beast?

Belle is introduced as this pretty young girl who always has her nose buried in a book. She and her father, a budding inventor, are ridiculed by the townspeople, who find them very odd. Then we meet Gaston, a popular and handsome but brutish hunter. He wants to marry Belle, much to her confusion and distaste.
One day, Belle’s father gets lost in the woods, is attacked by wolves and seeks shelter in a huge seemingly abandoned castle. There, he is observed by a curious anthropomorphic candle stand and a clock and soon all the servants, cursed to spend eternity locked away with their master as non-living objects, greet and serve their rare visitor. When the Beast awakens and sees the intruder, he bursts into a fit of beastly anger and he holds Belle’s father prisoner.

Phillipe, his darling horse, arrives home alone and a frightened but determined Belle sets off to find her father. They reach the castle and the household is immediately abuzz with the arrival of a girl, who might be the one to break the curse. To set her father free, Belle makes a bold deal with the Beast, to switch places with her father and stay captured in the castle forever. The Beast is awed by her sacrifice, and in a moment of inspired kindness, offers her a room instead of the prison cell.

At the insistence of his servants, the Beast invites Belle for dinner. But she declines, proceeding to fume in her room. He requests her to get out, then forces her, and then guiltily shifts back to pleading her, only to lose his temper and declare that if she ever wants to eat she has to do it with him. But Belle is not one to be scared by threats. At night, she sneaks out of the room and at her request for food, the entire cutlery and crockery of the castle burst into delightful song and make her the grandest French meal in the history of cartoon.

On a mission to explore, in a forbidden part of the castle, Belle comes upon the slowly withering rose, stored carefully in a glass jar. It’s the young prince’s room, complete with a torn apart picture of a handsome young man. Just as she’s about to take a closer look at the mysterious rose, the Beast arrives and hides it. He angrily pushes her away from the precious remains of the flower and roars at her. Angry and insulted, Belle leaves the castle with Phillipe.

In the woods, the dreadful wolves attack them. A brave Belle is fighting them, when the Beast arrives. He chases off the wolves and is wounded in the process. Belle stays, if reluctantly, to help her saviour. Back at the castle, as she nurses his wounds, we notice in the Beast an almost childlike quality. There’s something very human about him arguing with the girl. Belle thanks him for saving her life, and he responds with a touched “You’re welcome.” It seems to be the first time that someone has thought of him as more than a beast. Over the following days, Belle brings out the good in him, till ultimately, he changes into someone worthy of her love.

Of course, the troubles are far from over with the horrible Gaston plotting to send Belle’s father to an asylum and blackmailing her into marrying him. Belle wants to leave the castle to save her father, and despite only the last petal hanging on to the rose, the Beast lets her go, wondering if she would come back.

What I thought: The thing I like the most about this story is that the characters are gray (except Gaston, whom I hate on principle.) Belle isn’t completely good just the like the Beast is not wholly bad. Belle takes unthinking risks, she can be a bit of a nose-poker (like entering his part of the castle when he’d expressly asked her not to) and she does let the Beast sway her mind with gifts (the library.) We never know why the servants are punished, but perhaps not all are as pitiable before the curse either as they appear during!

I think this is the only Disney story where the heroine is not in love with the idea of love. Here, love develops gradually and for a reason, it’s neither love at first sight nor prophecy. Belle isn’t different because she’s a reader. Belle is unique Disney heroine, because while she does read fairy tales and dream of adventures and princes in disguise, she isn’t waiting for love to happen to her. And in this story, love is hardly the only thing on her mind. Remember, she chases after her father, not Prince Charming.

I don’t accept the accusation that this story sends the message of loving a man despite the fact that he abuses you, of bearing with his tantrums. It’s about giving people a chance. Belle doesn’t discount any of the Beast’s angry comments or bad decisions – whenever he shouts at her, she shouts back. If he tries to hurt her, she fights him off. But she is open to the idea that he could be good. When she first sees him in the light, she doesn’t judge him by his appearance, even though he scares her. She gives him the benefit of the doubt.

But the story is not just about Belle’s forgiveness or second chances. At its heart, I always see it as the Beast’s story. It’s about meeting someone wonderful and falling in love with them and transforming yourself; becoming unselfish, trying harder to turn into the best version of you for them. As that fabulous Angela Lansbury song goes, “bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong…”

The quintessential Disney-ness of the movie with its charming music and the at once enchanting and funny animation only adds to the magic. This is definitely worth a watch!
Do you like Disney movies? How did you find Beauty and the Beast?  Which is your favourite fairy tale adaptation? Any recommendations?

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

This is my first read for the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, for the Short Story Quest. The Once Upon a Time Challenge is a reading and viewing event for the four broad genres of fairy tale, fantasy, folklore and mythology. I plan to participate with Quest the First (reading at least five books fitting in any of these genres) and might join in for the June readalong of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
When I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I was literally in love with the book. I wrote three posts about reading the mountain of a book, one for each part, and by the end I was convinced “fantasy couldn’t get any better than this, magic couldn’t get more original.” And I stand by my opinion after this little short story collection as well. Susanna Clarke is a fantastic writer and both the books are definitely worth your time.
The word fantasy brings to mind Tolkien and the whole range of epic fantasy, along with the insanely widespread young adult paranormal genre. What Clarke gives us in her books is something unique in today’s world, basically because it is so old-fashioned. She’s Neil Gaiman meeting Jane Austen, which is kind of cool.
The stories are not what you’d expect from modern fairy tales at all, but rather, they’re written quite archaic and very folksy. The setting for these stories makes them special, because it isn’t enchanted toadstools and pretty winged fairies that she talks about, but the eerie unknown magical world full of wicked creatures who excel in trickery and deceit. Faerie, in Clarke’s world, is fairyland as it was probably first intended to be – full of the mysterious, inexplicable things that people were afraid of and avoided. While I’m not a big expert on English fairy tales, these did sound like the original, darker and more absurd Grimm’s tales – the ones meant for adults, not children.
I don’t suppose you need to have read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to enjoy this book. If you have read the novel, and if you loved it like I did, you must read this book! If you haven’t and are too intimidated by the nine-hundred-something pages, give this a try, to get a glimpse of what she has to offer. The stories:
The Ladies of Grace Adieu – This is the expansion of a footnote from the novel. When Jonathan Strange pays his brother-in-law a visit, he encounters three lady magicians, who chide him for his (Norrell’s) skepticism towards the Raven King and his pure old practical magic. It’s a good story about the consequences of magic and the place of female magicians in Clarke’s alternate London. Also part of the story is a charming short tale of the Raven King from when he was just a Raven Child, setting the scene for the final story.
“Magic, madam, is like wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make
you drunk. A successful spell is as potent a loosener of tongues as a bottle of
good claret and you will find the morning after that you have said things you
now regret.” 
On Lickerish Hill – This seemed to me a retelling Rumpelstiltskin, which is easily my favourite Grimm’s fairy tale. Realizing these were going to be typical English fairy tales, I decided to read the book English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, which I found on Project Gutenberg. And the very first tale was Tom Tit Tot, an English version of Rumpelstiltskin. So, I should say, On Lickerish Hill is actually a retelling of Tom Tit Tot, involving Faerie and more explicit magic. It’s also a first person narration, unlike your usual fairy tale, and the heroine who would have otherwise sounded like a helpless naive thing actually moves the story forward and ends up appearing pretty clever.
Mrs. Mabb – This is a darkly fantastical story about the world of Faerie and the English world colliding in a nasty cat fight over, guess what, which of the ladies, fairy or human, gets to marry this man. It works because of its utter un-originality. 
The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse – This delightful little tale is set in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Specifically, in the Victorian-English village of Wall – where a wall divides two worlds that are better off separate. I loved the crossing over of worlds, and Clarke certainly seemed to have had fun writing it. The Duke of Wellington is quite a character and the story is very amusing. For all the men in this book, who historically correctly find the women basically pointless, this book does have a lot of instances of girl (lady) power.

Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower – This is a creatively written story of a man who discovers he’s not quite as human as he’d grown up convinced. There is some wonderfully vivid imagery in this story.
At the end she was
like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at
their frames: death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged
about inside her head. She appeared to believe that she had been taken by force
to a place where she was watched night and day by a hideous jailoress.

Tom Brightwind or How The Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby – Tom Brightwind is a handsome, arrogant fairy who reminded me a lot of someone – I racked my brains trying to remember whom and finally realized it was Howl Pendragon. A centuries older and even less morally inclined Wizard Howl. Tom is friends with a human. One day, the two friends happen to travel to a small village called Thoresby, which lies across a river and can only be accessed by ferry. Though they’re initially off to another place, they end up staying in Thoresby to build a bridge. How Tom Brightwind builds the fairy bridge and what the bridge does is for you to read!

Antickes and Frets – This is the story of how the conceited and sly Queen of Scots plots revenge on the Queen of England using evil magic and a bit of cunning embroidery.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner – This, of course, was the highlight of the bunch, if only because it starred the Raven King himself. Both while I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and now, this book, I seemed even to myself like a puppy begging for scraps – for stories of John Uskglass, the Raven King. Clarke gives us a little snippet in the first story in the collection and never once mentions him till this last story. And the little bits I did get were delicious but not enough.

Each of these stories is totally different from the rest, and the only thing keeping them strung together is the probably-never-done-before way Susanna Clarke makes magic real. You’d have to read the book to know just what I mean, but I’ll give you this:

It occurs to me that
just as Reason is seated in the brain of Man, so we Fairies may contain within
ourselves some organ of Magic.

What about you, do you like fairy tales? Old or new? And have you read Susanna Clarke?

Little, Big by John Crowley

My third read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge is a fairy tale of sorts. Neil Gaiman called Little, Big one of his favourite books in the world and I do know why.

The book is massive, not in size but in scope and delightfully intricate, the kind of book that slowly makes its way into your thoughts, till it’s all you can think of. It took me a little more than a month to reach the last few chapters of the book, and then, just a couple of hours to devour it completely! It’s not a book full of action nor drama. It is quiet, almost lazy, but quite strong.

The book starts as Smoky Barnable journeys by foot to Edgewood to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, whom he was prophesied to marry long before he knew her. What follows is a story spanning a hundred years, of the lives of four generations of Drinkwaters and their relations in a strange country house situated on the border of Fairyland. Daily Alice, her sister Sophie, her parents and aunts and children are all part of a Tale that is still unfolding and yet, is already written in the cards. Most of the family seem to sense the existence of the other land, and many, like Smoky, though unconvinced, go along with it. The odd creatures from the other world rarely make an appearance in the book, but they’re always there, watching, manipulating. As the story unfolds, the inevitability of the fate which was written by a mere stack of cards only strengthens.

The book is massive, I said, but it’s also small. Little, big, like the title. It’s a small glimpse of something that keeps on spiralling into new things, it’s a young story from an ancient world. It’s Smoky and Alice’s boy Auberon writing scripts for a soap opera and at the same time, it’s His Majesty Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, being resurrected after an eternity to rule a minuscule land.

The book made me think a lot about people. About me, of course, and about loving someone or losing someone and how both the things are in a pathetic way, quite the same. “Love is a myth”, the book tells us, like summer is a myth during a long winter; but it does come and just as surely summer goes away, becoming once again, just a rumour. The book gave me a different perspective on life and a whole new way of looking at destiny: the idea of living without letting the ultimate, total loss of control make you feel helpless. It made me wonder how we automatically assign wickedness to all things unknown, and how wickedness is just a crazy sense of humour. It made me realize how little we are. 

And so, it made me think about the supposed little things, things like the faces in the cracks of your ceiling and the imaginary friends all our parents have caught us talking to, the stories in our head about life, family, goals and jobs and the big secrets that we let rule our thoughts. Little things that make no big difference do make small differences, I guess. The real big things, big enough to be important in this old, wide world are far beyond our reach. And so the little things do matter, because while they may not change the wide world, they’re the things that we control and that change us. We’re all a part of something small and something unimaginably huge and balancing it out, often in vain, is what life’s all about. Right? 

For the first few hundred pages, it felt like I was reading a dream until it occurred to me that I was, in fact, reading a life: the prose, with all its meandering nuances was life, rambling on as it does. The story felt so real, precisely because it was so boundless.

“In the good old
days, when polls were as common as house-to-house searches were now, pollsters
asked viewers why they liked the bizarre torments of the soap operas, what kept
them watching. The commonest answer was that they liked soap operas because
soap operas were like life.

Like life. Auberon
thought “A World Elsewhere,” under his hands, was coming to be like a
lot of things: like truth, like dreams; like childhood, his own anyway; like a
deck of cards or an old album of pictures. He didn’t think it was like life–not
anyway like his own. On “A World Elsewhere,” when a character’s
greatest hopes were dashed, or his task all accomplished, or his children or
friends saved by his sacrifice, he was free to die or at least to pass away; or
he changed utterly, and reappeared with a new task, new troubles, new children.
Except for those whose embodying actors were on vacation or ill, none simply
came to a stop, all their important actions over, haunting the edges of the
plot with their final scripts (so to speak) still in their hands.

_That_ was
like life, though: like Auberon’s.

Not like a plot,
but like a fable, a story with a point, which had already been made.”

Oddly, the book bore an uncanny resemblance to another favourite: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. They are both so richly… magical. It’s odd, because when it comes to the content, they’re very different. The magic itself is vastly different. But both books carry that air of something initially mysterious and incomprehensible and at the end, honest and strikingly witty. Reading both the stories was like trudging through a long winding road, expecting a concrete destination, maybe a final showdown and realizing at the end just what the road was all about. It was when the pieces fell together, so to say, that I realized that they always were together; the picture was always complete, I just hadn’t deciphered it. The experience, though fascinating and intriguing, left me feeling almost silly both times, like when you first notice the faces in Rubin’s vase and wonder how you could have missed them. Perhaps the next time I read such a story, I won’t be fooled. And so, it would, I imagine, be an altogether different journey to re-read either of these books. I am curious to know whether I’d discover, learn everything then, that I’ve overlooked  now.