Fairy tales, a wonder, a mystery, and spring.
Happy spring one and all. From here I am still able to see snow on the foothills even as the earliest blossom visitors have arrived in their lacy pastels. It’s been a long dreary haul and I’m glad for the colors that speckle the yard today.
On my birthday I received a copy of Waking Beauty written by Rebecca Solnit – she who, I believe, coined the word ‘mansplaining’.
Solnit retells the Sleeping Beauty story and it should be no surprise she adds feminist notions along with new tweaks to the traditional whimsical bits.
In Waking Beauty, Sleeping Beauty has a sister, Maya, who carries on in the land where queens rule as Sleeping Beauty naps for 100 years. And although she is a royal, Maya becomes an artist and lives a full life filled with cherry blossoms and magic. The prince character is different in this retelling too, he is a rescuer in only an incidental way and is given a deeper background and livelier future. Solnit keeps the fairy tale vibe alive in this book even as the characters are reformulated to inspire 21st century readers.
Solnit said this about fairy tales, “Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route to becoming. All the magic and glass mountains and pearls the size of houses and princesses beautiful as the day and talking birds and part-time serpents are distractions from the core of most of the stories, the struggle to survive against adversaries, to find your place in the world, and to come into your own.”
By the way all illustrations in the book were created by Arthur Rackham, they are delicate silhouettes and add a slight nostalgic touch to this modern fairy tale.
My memory falters now and then and I am unsure if I read Melissa Banks’ book, The Wonder Spot when it was published in the early 00s. The Wonder Spot sure felt familiar when I blazed through it this winter as belligerent winds howled outside, but no matter if this was a first or second read, I loved this breezy book.
The Wonder Spot is laid out in discrete chapters, each a slice of Sophie Applebaum’s life over a 20+ year span. Sophie is an everywoman, born luckier than most, but not necessarily more talented. Throughout, Sophie presents as a wiseacre underdog: a so-so student and later, just competent in her work. She is equally unsure of both her professional path and romantic future. Banks structured this book in stand-alone chapters, but the story line never flagged as Sophie repeatedly strives, stumbles and recovers with smart-assed takes on the day-to-day. I laughed as I read, and it was exactly what I needed to brighten the short grey winter days and long winter nights.
Throughout the book Sophie remains close to her family and many of the funniest bits come from her interactions with them. For example, when Sophie meets her mother’s new very late-in-life boyfriend she notes how age has shriveled and shrunk them, and thinks to herself, “Together the two of them looked like a fairy tale: Once upon a time there was a couple who lived in an old can of corn, with an eraser for a bed, a leaf for a blanket, and a fly for a pet”.
There are no profound revelations in The Wonder Spot but it is a comfort to read Sophie’s basic life, which Banks cleverly elevates through humor and tight writing. Read this when you need to appreciate your everyday life a bit more, turns out it’s a wonder.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai is my bet to become the book of Spring 2023. And after tearing through it, I feel the buzz around this one is deserving.
In the 1990’s a student at an elite boarding school is murdered and the only African American on the staff is accused and jailed. Bodie Kane, the book’s narrator, was a student then and the murdered girl’s roommate. The story begins in present day as Bodie is heading back to that school to teach a special mid-term mini-course on podcasting. Bodie is now a podcaster of note and her popular show focuses on Hollywood female stars who have been chewed up (raped, maimed, killed, kicked to the curb) by the movie industry.
It doesn’t take long (Day 1) before one of Bodie’s students declares her intention to cover the 1990’s school murder. This causes Bodie to scrutinize those high school days before and after the murder. The 1990s play a lot differently with today’s woke hindsight and Bodie’s flashbacks demonstrate how casual 1990s male/female student interactions carried overtones of risk, violence and exploitation. My own revelation as I read: no one thought much about threatening innuendos and high school smack talk in the last part of the 20th century, let alone special attention from popular young teachers. You took it then, as part of the silent honor code. You took it then because you didn’t want to be called worse names. You took it then because no one would do much about it anyway.
This book is much more than a school murder mystery (although the mystery is a good one with plenty of red herrings and memory tricks). Makkai delivers a balanced examination of our modern culture: the current true crime obsession that focuses more on crafting an entertaining story line rather than searching for the root cause of violence; police violence and black citizens; getting dragged by the #MeToo movement; violence against women; privilege and the privilege of being able to walk away while tossing out half-truths. You get it, the more ways we have to look at ourselves, the more we reveal the uneven and dangerous playground on which we all tramp around, it’s just deadlier for some.
I loved this book and it is currently at the top of my 2023 favorite books list. I will certainly read more written by talented Rebecca Makkai.
I am all for self-confession in 2023. It seems appropriate here to rat myself out about books I didn’t finish:
- Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. This one felt like it would likely play better on film (unless it picks up an 80 for Brady vibe). I liked the characters who are retirees living in a continuing care community, but I didn’t care much about the murder they were investigating.
- The Dove Keepers by Alice Hoffman. This is a dense story about the horrible siege of Masada in CE 73. A good friend of mine recommended it, no doubt it is fantastic but my heart could not take it.
Until later m’dears. Enjoy the spring air, the garden fairies, other mysteries and the sweet sweet sun.