“Grimm’s Fairy Tales” Review

4-star rating

This lavishly illustrated volume, published in 1961 in London, contains only about 50 of the over 200 folktales Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collected during their lifetimes. It includes, of course, some of the most famous: Cinderella, Hänsel and Grethel (Hansel and Gretel), Rapunzel, Snow-White, and Tom Thumb, among others.

One of the most interesting aspects of reading these original versions of the stories is how different they are from the Disney-fied versions. Cinderella, for example, had no fairy godmother, no pumpkin-carriage, no clock striking midnight, and no glass slipper, and each of her evil sisters mutilated themselves to try to fit a foot into the shoe she did leave behind.

Even in their day, some of the Grimms’ stories were so bloody, or included certain topics, that they were not considered suitable for children. None of the stories in this collection go quite that far, but perceptive readers will occasionally notice some “interesting” things going on in the background.

Many other stories are variations of the theme of the fool or peasant getting the better of the rich man or the king. Often they’re rewarded either with vast riches or the king’s almost-always beautiful daughter and then inherit the kingdom themselves. And of course they live happily ever after, although that phrase never appears in any of the stories in this collection.

Magic plays a role in some of these stories, but only a few, and fairies, elves, and their kind rarely appear, despite the English name for the collection—the original name was Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales)—and for the title of this book.

Political correctness was unknown in the Grimms’ day, so some of the stories relate negative stereotypes about residents of certain areas, like the seven Swabians who are so stupid they’re first terrified by a hare, then drown themselves in the Mosel River when they think the first one managed to walk across the bottom because they saw his hat float away. If you’ve never read any of these stories in their original form, this book is a good place to start.

“The Portable Walt Whitman” Review

4-star rating

Walt Whitman, and his contemporary Emily Dickinson, were the seminal poets of their era, and had influence on American poetry far beyond their lifetimes. Which, of course, means they get studied in English classes, and that’s where I first encountered this book, during my master’s degree studies.

These classes naturally focus on bits and pieces of his multi-edition collection, Leaves of Grass, and especially his “Song of Myself,” but I wanted to read this entire book, not only to get the full measure of Whitman’s poetry, but to read his prose writing, which gets far less attention. I’m glad I did.

The hallmarks of Whitman’s early work are not just how he abandoned the stiff formalism of the poetry that came before, but how he would pile up lists of the characteristics and qualities of whatever or whoever he was writing about. By reading more of his work, it’s possible to see how his writing evolved, how he moved away from the lists in his later work, especially after the Civil War.

Another aspect that comes out in a wider reading is his transcendentalist views: the unity and essential goodness of all things. He clearly took a lot of this from Ralph Waldo Emerson. That comes through in spades in his sometimes-fawning 1856 letter to Emerson, accompanying a copy of the latest version of Leaves, in which he calls the philosopher “Master” several times. This transcendentalism seems to get little attention in academic circles.

To read the rest of the review, please click here.

“The City in the Middle of the Night” Review

5-star rating
3-star rating

I’ve never done a review like this, but it’s been a long time, if ever, since I’ve read (and finished) a book like this. A single rating simply isn’t sufficient to capture my responses to the book, so there are three: five stars, three, and one.

5-star rating

Give Charlie Jane Anders five stars for her world-building and how it’s woven into the novel. January is a tidally locked planet, that is, it has one side that always faces its sun while the other side always faces away. Somehow humans decided it was habitable, at least in the thin band of twilight along what astronomers call the “terminator,” the dividing line between the dark and sunlit sides.

Anders not only creates this world and its native inhabitants, she creates a complete backstory of the humans in the generations ship who came to populate the planet, the vastly different cultures of the two major cities they founded, and groups of wanderers who travel between them. The cities, Xiosphant and Argelo, not only have highly distinct, and largely corrupt, governments, they have their own languages, currencies, and ways of dealing with the fact that the sun never rises or sets.

All of this is highly imaginative, well thought out, and skillfully integrated. The details never get in the way of the story Anders is telling. It’s a bravura performance.

Click here to find out what I gave this one-star rating to, and why, and what I gave the 3-star rating.

“Science and the Arts” Review

4-star rating

“Science and the Arts” is one of a large series of magazine-like books, or book-like magazines, that Scientific American offers to its subscribers as a reward for renewing their subscription. Each contains a collection of articles from the magazine that relate to some general topic, in this case, as the subtitle of the work indicates, “the interrelationship of science and art.”

Published sometime in the mid- to late 1990s, this volume contains articles that span nearly four decades, from 1955 to 1994, and cover topics ranging from the creative process to visual art, sculpture, music, and perception. There’s even a long poem by John Updike.

Because of the age of the articles, it’s fair to assume that the science of each topic covered has advanced, probably significantly. Even so, each reports on important advances in the state of knowledge at the time they were originally published. One article explains the physics of violins, and how small differences in construction can have significant effects on the quality of the sound a given instrument produces. Another examines how players of the valveless baroque trumpet were able to clearly play the full range of notes written for their instruments, even though the construction of the horn worked against doing so. George Rickey explains how he was able to make exquisitely balanced, multi-piece metal sculptures that move effortlessly in even the slightest breeze.

As a long-time subscriber to Scientific American, I was interested to note how the articles have changed over the years. The pieces in this collection are typically far longer than what you’ll find today and the language is denser. Not surprisingly, yesterday’s artwork and illustrations are far less sophisticated than today’s.

While the pieces are all dated, some significantly so, I still found most of them fascinating and enlightening. For someone who is interested in how science and art interact—and they most certainly do—this book is worth picking up if you can find a copy. Recommended.

“Adventures, Outlaws and Past Events” Review

4-star rating

In this, the final book in the Icelandic Folktales series, we leave behind the ghosts, ghouls, and goblins of the previous books. As the title might suggest, the stories are generally longer than in the first two books, and humans are the only characters.

Magic still plays a role at times. In one story, the poor friend of two princes follows them as they seek fame and fortune. At each royal house where they winter-over, the poor boy makes himself useful to the royal family, and earns a magical boon as his reward, while the princes do nothing, but have to pay handsomely for their room and board. Finally, the three adventurers arrive at the castle of a harridan virgin queen. She allows only eunuchs in her court, and any man who refuses is banished to a desert island. The princes decide that no price is too high to be a member of the court. The boy declines, but uses his magical gifts to keep not only himself but the other men on the island healthy and whole. Despite her threats to his life, he finally wins the queen’s heart and the throne next to hers. The princes come out all right in the end too. The new king keeps one to be his advisor, and sends the other home to succeed his father.

This story is typical of the length and complexity of the tales in this volume, although not all, such as the story of the outlaw Axlar-Bjorn and his wife Steinunn doesn’t end so happily, at least not for the outlaws.

The book ends with an odd collection of sayings and jokes, like the two men complaining about how things were better in the olden days, when there were frequent fights in church! Spoken like the true descendants of Vikings, I guess. As I have for the first two books, I’ll recommend this one especially for readers looking for folk tales from new places.

“Elves, Trolls and Elemental Beings” Review

4-star rating

This is book two of the Icelandic Folktales series.

The island of Iceland sits at the north end of the Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle. While the Gulf Stream, which passes by on the south side moderates temperatures some, Icelandic weather is highly changeable, and winter nights are very long. No surprise, then, that long, dark, nights, howling winds, blizzards, and oh by the way, volcanoes, can take the imaginations of isolated farmers and travelers in dark directions.

In these stories, trolls and especially trollwives are the bane of the traveler and the shepherd watching over his flock in isolated summer pastures, often luring them to their death, slavery, or even transformation into trolls themselves.

Icelandic elves bear no resemblance to, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s. They can be every bit as devious and evil as the trolls, just smaller. They stick closer to settlements, too. They look like humans (no pointy ears here) but control whether humans can see them. And elves and humans can sometimes have not-so-dangerous relations, but the humans are always one misstep away from trouble. And that trouble can be serious indeed.

There are stories of mermaids, seals who take human form, and even a whale, not surprising for the residents of an island for whom ocean fishing was an important task.

While dark, the stories often feature humans overcoming the dangers they face, although sometimes at a high price.

As with book 1, this volume is recommended for the reader looking for new and different folk tales.

“Ghosts, Witchcraft and the Other World” Review

4-star rating

This is the first book in the Icelandic Folktales series. The stories were originally collected by Jón Árnason and Magnús Grímsson in the 1800s, and were translated by Alan Boucher in the 1970s. This volume features stories of ghosts, witches, and the Devil himself.

Iceland is a beautiful but rugged country with ferocious and highly changeable weather. Early farmers lived far apart on isolated farmsteads. Life was hard, so it’s no surprise that the supernatural world was real and near to them. Ghosts and other spirits walked among them, often with malicious intent. The Devil was around too, but not as the nearly all-powerful being imagined in Continental Europe and the Americas. Here, he could not only be bargained with, he could be beaten or fooled, and often was. On top of this, unlike Christian clerics elsewhere, many priests were also adepts, with various magical powers, and they could often be called upon to undo a curse or relieve a spell or haunting.

Boucher has not tried to pretty-up the language of these stories, retaining the plain wording and simple styles that Árnason and Grímsson originally captured, but readers are likely to stumble over the place names, whose origins are in old Scandinavian tongues, especially Norwegian.

If you’re interested in the folktales from faraway lands but are tired of those from England or Central Europe, you can be transported back in time and space with this book and its companions. Recommended.

“Endurance” Review

5-star rating

Scott Kelly’s early life as a kid from West Orange, New Jersey, just west of New York City, gave no hint of what he and his twin brother Mark would become. Scott in particular was a mediocre student at best, drifting through school, even junior college, just getting by. Until he read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the story of the seven original US astronauts.

That book sparked the passion in him that led him to become a Navy F-14 pilot, a test pilot, and ultimately an astronaut who would fly both the Space Shuttle and on the International Space Station. His final mission aboard the ISS lasted nearly a year. That year would prove to be a true test of endurance—mental and emotional more than physical—for not only him, but his ex-wife, their two daughters, and his girlfriend. Those of us who have experienced long-term military deployments to far-off foreign lands, especially in the days when we had little or no contact with our loved ones back home, can certainly relate to his struggles. For those who have not had that experience, Kelly’s story can be revealing.

Endurance is more than a story of that struggle, however. It’s also a fascinating look into how the US and Russian space programs differ, especially in their attitudes and approaches to doing something that is dangerous and hard every single day. The hard and dangerous parts don’t end with arrival at the station. Not only are the astronauts scientists and engineers, they’re also mechanics. When something breaks—especially something critical like one of the devices that scrubs carbon dioxide out of the air, or either of the two toilets—it’s up to the astronauts to fix it. While it’s true they get lots of advice and guidance from the teams on the ground, the astronauts are the ones who have to do the physical work.

To read the rest of the review, please click here.

“In the Palm of Your Hand” Review

4-star rating

I dabble in writing poetry, so years ago a now-deceased poet-acquaintance recommended I pick up a copy of Steve Kowit’s book. At the time, I couldn’t get more than a few chapters into Palm because I wasn’t ready for it. It went back on the shelf.

Since then, my poems have been well received, even sweeping the poetry awards at a local writers’ conference last year. So a few months ago, I decided it was time to give the book another try. Four chapters in, I stalled out again, but after a few weeks away from it, I decided to keep going. I’m glad I did.

The book’s two subtitles, “The poet’s portable workshop,” and “A lively and illuminating guide for the practicing poet” turned out to be accurate. Chapters 2 to 27 (of 30) end with exercises to encourage the reader to practice the topics discussed, and it was the exercises in chapters 2-4 that caused me to put the book down. Kowit was asking me to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing, dredging up old, perhaps unhappy memories. While this sort of material can certainly produce powerful poetry, this demand this early in the book is one of my few major complaints. Perhaps for the “practicing poet,” this kind of work is less challenging, but for the novice, particularly someone uninterested in revisiting those times, this can be intimidating enough to cause him or her to stop reading and stop trying. It would have been better, for this reader anyway, if these chapters had been placed later in the book.

To read the rest of this review, please click here.

“Creating Fiction” Review

3-star rating

My first contact with Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, was in one of my “Writing the Novel” classes while I was earning my master’s degree in English. As so often happens in an academic setting, we did not read all of the essays in the book, so I thought that, over 10 years later, it would be a good idea to reread the ones I had read before and read the rest for the first time.

While I’m not sorry I did, some things became clear as I read it.

The most important point is that the book is not really written for the working writer. The nearly two dozen essays were written by writers who also teach at colleges or universities around the country, all of which are members of the Associated Writing Programs. As a result, most of the essays are directed at other college writing teachers, particularly those teaching undergraduates. This reduces the book’s value for the working writer.

Second, while all of the authors are published, many are award winners or New York Times best-sellers, and a few are big names in literary fiction (John Barth, Alberto Ríos, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley), because of their literary backgrounds, they pay scant attention to the genres besides “literary.” Further, the essayists assume that readers will be familiar with the predominantly literary stories and novels they refer to. Academics likely are, but writers in other-than-literary genres may not be, which makes the references less valuable.

To read the rest of this review, please click here.