Tag Archives: retold tales

#1: The Fairest of Them All by Carolyn Turgeon

And we’re off!  Welcome to Cannonball Read VI!  If you’re new, take a second to learn about CBR and how books can fight cancer.  If you’re looking for more book suggestions, be sure to bookmark the main blog where all of us submit our reviews.  There’s a little bit of everything over there.  And don’t forget to visit Pajiba when you’re done!

FairestOnce upon a time (as so many of these stories start) in a far off kingdom (where so many of these stories take place), there lived a beautiful young woman named Rapunzel.

Rapunzel was raised by Mathena, who rescued Rapunzel when she was seven years old.  Loving and kind, she hid Rapunzel away in the woods so her neglectful and cruel parents would never find her.  She taught Rapunzel everything about the forest – what plants can heal, which ones can hurt, and what to add to the soil to make the garden grow.

One day, the Prince shows up.  Seventeen year old Rapunzel is helpless against him.  His beauty and power tears their way into her heart.  She in turn bewitches his mind, calling him to her from her tower.

Oh, not bewitching.  A witch is killed.  Mathena and Rapunzel are simple healers, even if it’s only women who creep to the cottage at night, begging for cures for their broken hearts or potions to lure a man to their empty beds.

Following the rules of the tale, Mathena locks Rapunzel in her tower to protect her, but of course the Prince arrives to climb her beautiful hair and ride away with her virginity.

He is promised to another.

Rapunzel is with child.

The women who visit the cottage bring stories of the Princess-to-be.  The marriage will prevent a war with a neighboring kingdom.  She is named after Saint Teresa and the court delights in her piousness.  She will bring God’s favor to them with her goodness and religious heart.  Soon, the King dies and Rapunzel’s prince takes the throne.

There is no room for the magic of herbs and flowers.  And the King is not hers.

Rapunzel aches for her loss.  Her belly swells, her body breaks.  Mathena tries to comfort her, but she has shattered.

Soon, the Queen gives the King a child.  Skin as white as snow.  Hair black as ebony.  Lips red as blood.  The kingdom falls in love with little Snow White.

And then, one night, one of the Queen’s ladies arrives at the cottage.  Terrified she will be found out, but desperate for help, she sits next to the fire and cries.  Mathena gives comfort and aid, just as she has to all the women who have come to her.

But she also gives her tea for the Queen, and soon the Queen is dead.

The King races for Rapunzel, finally able to find her now that Mathena has lifted the spells that hid the tower from him.  Ignoring everyone at court, he brings her back to be his Queen, something Rapunzel has been waiting for since seeing him for the first time.  Something Mathena knew would happen.

Queen Rapunzel, the evil stepmother?  Only she loves Snow White.  The girl is beautiful and sweet and Rapunzel longs to fill the ache in her heart left by her mother’s death.  The death that she brought.

Rapunzel gazes into her mirror each night, wanting to know who is the fairest of them all.  Her hair piles around her, brushing against her skin.  Her beauty is both admired and feared.  Her skills are seen as witchcraft but these voice keep quiet, at least for now.  You are, the mirror tells her.  You are the fairest of them all.

She cannot give the King a child.  Desperate, she uses all her magic to try and conceive a son, but her body betrays her.

And then, one day, She is.  The mirror is still, and then She is the fairest of them all.

Rapunzel finds herself craving the heart of the Princess, who has become a beautiful young woman.

She is alone in the castle.

She will have the girl’s heart.

Mathena guides her from afar.

What happens when you learn all that you were bewitched to forget?  What happens when you learn that it’s not your story that’s being told?  How much have you lost because you were desperate for a King?  How long will it take for a poisoned apple to work its magic?

Who is the fairest of them all?

#32: Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse by Anne Carson

RedOh, how I loved this book.  This was another book club pick that I had no prior knowledge of.  I am so glad it was chosen, even if it wasn’t a huge hit with everyone.

I haven’t read a long piece of verse in a while but I love getting back into that brain space.  I’ve got a BA and M.Ed in English, so it doesn’t take me too long to find that sweet spot of feeling the rhythm of the language, not getting distracted by the line breaks, and getting pulled into the story.  For me, it feels like accessing a slightly different part of my brain than when I’m reading normal text.

Geryon is Red.  He’s a monster.  He hides his wings and tries to follow his older brother.  He’s an odd child, monster or not.  He speaks little but is always learning.  His mother is his solace and her unconditional love and guidance helps him find art.  He’s able to create a space for himself while being abused by his brother.  He grows, discovers photography and “somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.”

We know from Stesichoros that Geryon will be killed by Herakles.  He is the tenth labor and has fate is sealed when both are born.

But in this version of Geryon’s life, how will this death happen?  He and Herakles meet as teenagers.  He’s fourteen, Herakles is sixteen and Geryon  is doomed.  He spends as much time with Herakles as he can, wanting to love him completely, but at a complete loss when it comes to approaching the unnamed and unknown.  Herakles is all confidence and sexuality, and yet he seems to wait for Geryon to stumble into admitting something, or waiting for him to simply give up and give in.  Geryon’s longing and frustration is tangible and Herakles’ refusal to help soon starts to feel cruel.

But eventually Herakles possess him completely.  He is charming and only wants to journey and discover and find fun.  When Geryon amuses him, it as if they are the only two in the world.  Geryon feels unworthy and knows this attention is fleeting.  He’s desperate to keep Herakles interested.  He withdraws from his mother, both of them unsure how to approach each other now.

And then Herakles leaves Geryon behind.  He’s bored, or Geryon is boring.  Broken and sick, Geryon peers into his camera and waits.  Perhaps he’ll find something interesting, or become interesting.

Later, Herakles calls to hear his voice.  Geryon feels the love, still as fresh as it was when he was fourteen.  Herakles chatters on about dreams and Geryon is horrified to realize that Herakles doesn’t know him at all, and yet he knows he would still give up everything to be owned by Herakles again.

Years later he’s traveling.  He has his camera.  His wings are strapped tight to his back.  He falls in with scholars.  He listens and learns, like the little boy he was.

A sudden a punch to take the breath from his lungs, Herakles appears.  The two happen to be in the same place at the same time.  Herakles has Ancash now.  The two are traveling around South America.  Ancash is recording the sounds of volcanoes.  The redness Geryon  understands.  He hates Ancash.  He hates himself for drowning in Herakles so quickly.  The three travel together.  Ancash is furious.  Herakles continues to be oblivious and hurtful and wonderful and lovely.  Life is not hard for him.  He is a chosen one.

The three travel.  Geryon takes pictures.  The story’s path is obvious, but what will the ending be?  We know Herakles must kill him.  But how and when and will Geryon embrace him while he dies, or will he finally try to break free?

Geryon flies for Ancash.  He cries for Herakles, or because of him.  Ancash watches Herakles slip away while Geryon knows he’s not going to be the one to tame him.  Neither he or Ancash can keep Herakles.  The two become friends of sort because of this.  Perhaps Herakles will kill Ancash too.

Carson’s verse is red and fire and pain and wistfulness.  Geryon is almost always lost, and it’s heartbreaking because he knows he’s lost.  He is able to find himself in moments behind his camera.  He’s red and he’s surrounded by red and life is red, and he cannot live without Herakles.  Herakles will kill him and he is helpless.

Carson’s writing is beautiful.  The imagery and repetition creates a pacing and rhythm that was satisfying.  At times Geryon pauses and creeps towards his end, but other times there is quick movement, spread wings and soaring moments.  The imagery is skillfully crafted and even though Herakles does not notice, we see every drop of color in Geryon’s world.

I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys poetry.  Having a retelling of a Greek myth with confusing conversations with Stesichoros the author makes it difficult to walk away from.  Was it truth?  Did he have to rewrite to appease Helen and regain his sight?  When he was blind, did he actually see everything at once?  Which story is the real story?

Bonus Review! Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, Illustrated by Andrea Dezso

lies knives girls in red dressesThis one is too short to count toward my CBR goal but I didn’t want to leave it off my review list because I really enjoyed it.

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses is (are you ready?)  a collection of retold and re-imagined fairy tales.

I love this genre.  I don’t know if it’s possible to have a favorite of any type of book when you love books so much, but fairy tales and folklore are way up on the list, and when they turn into retold tales and urban fantasy, my knees get weak.

There are twenty two stories here, including Rapunzel, the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Hansel and Gretel, the Ugly Duckling, Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood, and the Princess with that damned pea.

The tales are told as short poems without much introduction.  We know who Cinderella is, so when we hear the aftermath from the stepsisters’ point of view, we don’t need to hear all that crap about the ball again.

To make these stories all the more sweet is the amazing mix between Once Upon and Time and Modern Time.

Cinderella’s stepsisters have surgery instead of their mother hacking off their toes.

Rapunzel’s mother talks about her three times a week therapy appointments.  The prince meets other princes in rehab while he waits for his eyes to heal.

The Little Match Girl is selling her CDs on the corner.  The cops find her dead, but what are you going to do?

A soldier makes a pact with the devil where he’ll wear the bearskin for seven years so his PTSD will stop.

The Beast is a bit bored now.  The weather is perfect, he’s a man again, but sometimes he really misses those fangs.

Hansel and Gretel?  Oh, they are pissed.  So very pissed.

Death makes his godson an amazing football player, poised to win the Heisman.  Things don’t go so well.

If you spit jewels when you speak and your sister spews toads, how on earth to you expect to keep a husband?

When you’re the only one speaking the truth about the Emperor’s New Clothes, how long can you hold out?

The miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin?  Life is so boring after you’ve won a dangerous game.  Surely there’s got to be something much more dangerous out there in the woods.

Little Red Riding Hood is trying to tell the story to her mom, but god, stop interrupting me!  The whole thing was, like, gross?  But whatever.  I let him.  And then some dude shows up with scissors and it’s wicked gay, but whatever, I’m hungry and you need to get off my back, OK?

I love it.

The illustrations are amazing.  Koertge wrote some beautiful lines, but without Dezso’s art, this book wouldn’t have been as good.  The art is all black on white in  woodcut style.  The lines are sharp and deep.  Shadows and movement surround the cuts and you can almost see the red of the blood as it drips down someone’s chin.

Even better?  Dezso is an art professor at Amherst College, so I bet I could go see her work in person somewhere.  http://andreadezso.com/

Hole.  Lee.  Shit.  She did embroidery of things her mother said to her as a child.  Transylvanian moms are AMAZING!

I need to stop looking at her page or I’m going to stay up for another hour and I should really go to bed.

In conclusion:

If you like folklore, fairy tales and slightly fucked up shit, get this book.  It’s much tamer than the monkey sex in Robert Coover’s Briar Rose but not purified like Disney.


#4: Briar Rose by Robert Coover

Briar RoseI love me a good old fashioned fucked up fairy tale.  Like most of us, I grew up on Disney.  I don’t know when the magic moment came, but the original stories were brought to me and OMFG you guys, it was awesome. I began to devour collections of tales from around the world, and the more violent and fucked up they were the happier I became.  How awesome is it when a fake princess gets red-hot iron shoes nailed to her feet and everyone watches until she dances herself to death?  And when The Little Mermaid returns to the water and becomes sea foam because she can’t bring herself to stab her love in the heart and smear the blood over her legs to get her tail back?  Fantastic. And Briar Rose… Sweet, sweet Briar Rose.  Imagine waking up because you’ve given birth and your baby has crawled up your lifeless body to grab on to your breast and feed.  What in the fucking fuck, right?  Prince Charming McCharmy banged you in your death sleep, knocked you up and took off.

Original tales, retellings, erotica, metaphor, modern day, tales for kids, the familiar motifs… bring them all to me.

And then I opened Robert Coover’s Briar Rose.

Do Not Want

Remember up there when I said I liked the twisted tales?  I was not prepared for this delightful nightmare. The tale is told in three voices: Briar Rose, The Prince, and the fairy who trapped them both.

The Prince follows his story close to the letter.  He hears there’s a princess, no other man has made it in to save her, he might be the chosen one, here come the thorns, let’s move in.  Will he make it?  What will happen?

The fairy is an interesting and fantastic take.  When you put a spell on a princess, you better be prepared to hang out for a hundred years waiting to see if it will ever be broken.

And then there’s Briar Rose.  When you sleep, you dream.  When you dream, shit gets weird.  How much of your dream is real?  How much is formed by snatches of conversation?  How does the sound of a room make its way into your mind?  How does it feel knowing you’re about to wake up, but then no… you slip back into  your death sleep.

And what happens when the world knows there’s a sleeping princess in a room in a castle surrounded by thorns?  What happens if a prince makes it in, looks at the girl and then thinks maybe he doesn’t want a wife and he doesn’t want to be the hero, but as long as he’s here…?  Briar Rose has dream after dream of her prince arriving to wake her with a kiss only to pinch her, to rape her sleeping form, to tie her up for gang rape, to have animals crawl over her body while her parents watch… How much is dream and how much is reality?  How frustrated must a man be to crawl through the thorns only to discover that his kiss isn’t the one to break the spell?  What if the seven dwarves appear only to realize that this sleeping beauty isn’t their Snow White?  A young body, delicate lips… waiting… waiting… waiting.  No one can see, no one can hear…

Meanwhile the fairy waits for Briar Rose’s dream self to appear seeking comfort. She tells her tale after tale, waiting for the moment when the girl realizes that the tales are all true.  But she’s a stupid girl, waiting for her prince, her kiss, and her love.  All those terrible things must not be true because that’s not how tales go.  That’s not how her tale goes.

So the fairy watches over her.  Cleans up a hundred years of menses.  Wipes her bottom.  Keeps her hair brushed.  Prepares her body for the readiness of her prince.  They are forever twined together, these two.  No matter how much the crone fairy scares her, she remains the one constant in Briar Rose’s life and she will continue to return to her for tales, but never for understanding.

So Briar Rose waits.  Yet another prince climbs through the window.  Or is this the first prince?  Her prince?

Her eyes flicker beneath her lids, but still, she sleeps…

Coover’s writing is beautiful.  His words are absolutely gorgeous as they reveal the rape and bestiality and incest and hope.  The rhythm of Briar Rose’s sections are dreamlike and disjointed.  As her body is violated again and again, she drifts away into her dreamy haze.  I stopped several times to reread an especially breathtaking passage.  He crafts a tale of horror using lovely language and I could not stop reading.

I’ve read a lot of retellings, and this is hands down the most fucked up one of all.  And Coover’s gift of words makes it amazing.  Another author could have gone for a debasing tale or a twisted erotica or pure kink, but Coover does so much more.

I have no clue who I’d recommend this to.  If you love fairy tales, then go for it, but prepare yourself to love something completely abhorrent.

#29: Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales edited by Ellen Datlow &Terri Windling

Yay for more retold faerie tales!  This time the baddies get their say.

Fifteen original tales by some of my favorite authors explore the villians’ side of what happened once upon a time.   Rupunzel’s witch is the one being imprisoned.  The giant’s wife has tells the tabloid version of Jack and her husband.  The oldest princess is sick of her eleven princess sisters dancing until dawn and wearing out their shoes.  The boy who cried wolf actually cries like a wolf.  Rumplestiltskin doesn’t make excuses for wanting the child and hating the spoiled spinner.  Hansel and Gretel’s witch had a heartbreaking childhood.  Evil stepbrothers are just as bad as the stepsisters.

Some of the tales are recognizable within the first few sentences while others are familiar motifs without a specific villain in mind.  What I liked the most about these tales is that they aren’t stories where the bad guys are sweet and innocent and just looked bad because they didn’t get to tell their story first; many of them are truly horrible, but they want you to see things from their perspective.

Anytime I see anything edited by Ellen Datlow &Terri Windling, I know it’s going to be wonderful, and this is another one to add to the list.  I’m glad they’re bringing their collections to a younger audience and giving them a taste for the real tales that are sometimes hidden from them.