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review 2016-01-06 02:40
The Annotated Brothers Grimm - Wilhelm Grimm,Jacob Grimm,Maria Tatar,A.S. Byatt

After soldiering through the preface, the introduction, the essay on the stories’ origins and cultural effects, and the first 19 tales, I skipped ahead to the biographical essay, the Grimms’ original prefaces, and the collected quotes on fairy tales; then I went back and read two more of the more iconic tales, carried it around in my messenger bag for another week or so, and tapped out, returning it to the library. I knew that it would take me a while to read the entire collection, but it was not the volume of tales to read that tried my patience in the end. It was the sterile imagination of both the Grimm’s versions of the tales and Tatar’s annotations.

For many, the Grimms’ accomplishment as the saviors of these iconic stories goes appreciated from a distance. Because the stories are known to most of us from their Disney incarnations, and from the versions that our parents told us from memory at bedtime, we don't feel the need to look into the Grimms’ versions. I had heard several times that the Grimm Brothers supply a darker, more realistic side of the stories that Uncle Walt and co. painted over in bright pastels. Having now read many of the tales, I have to say that the promised darkness is mostly absent. These versions are more violent, certainly, but the violence lacks stakes, just like the violence Kevin McCallister uses against the Wet Bandits, Harry and Marv.

The darker undertones of the stories were not excised by Disney from the Grimms, but rather the Grimm’s had already done most of the sterilizing for the sake of children by the time Disney got to them. The Grimms were not writers of fiction; they were researchers and collectors, and it shows. There is little to no narrative craft evident in any of the stories here present. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were not interested in taking on the roles of raconteurs, but instead collected simple, emblematic versions of the tales that serve as blueprints for invention, rather than as engaging acts of storytelling in their own right.

These stories only really come alive when gifted storytellers bring their own unique voices to bear on them. Even Disney’s aggressively family-friendly animated classics are actually an improvement on the versions collected here rather than a disservice to them. Only serving to compound the Grimms’ unimaginative and didactic narratives, are Tatars annotations. Among the many side-notes littering the page margins are such gems as “the Grimms added maxims like this one to strengthen the moral backbone of the tale,” and "Maternal love, protection, and security are established from the start as a sharp contrast to the threat embodied in the wolf, who will be introduced as a predator whose gluttony knows no limits. The mother is nurturing and loving; the wolf is interested only in indulging his desires. The distinction between mother goat and wolf takes concrete form in the quality of voice and color of feet. The mother’s voice is sweet, the wolf’s is rough; the mother’s paws are white, the wolf’s are black."Not only have the Grimms already employed the most transparent and hamfisted means to get their point across, Tatar then talks down even more to the reader by pointing out these techniques as though they needed clarification. It’s not unlike questioning a parent’s decision and getting the response, “Because I said so,” rather than an actual explanation for their decision, and then having a nosy spinster aunt chirping in to say, “Listen to your parents. They know what’s best for you.”

Especially offensive is the degree to which the Grimms pervert Nature to assure their protagonists’ triumph. Nature is not something that the characters observe and try to understand, and then use to their advantage when possible, and occasionally find has bigger concerns than them. Nature in these fairy tales-- both human nature and nature in general-- is not a wilderness, it is a garden that is carefully pruned, and groomed into a more pleasant form. I do not hold that the fairy tale moniker is excuse enough for these grievances. One can write a story that is uplifting and optimistic without being insulting, and the Grimms failed to do so. An individual who views Nature as the Grimms did will most likely find themselves greatly disillusioned when faced with the real thing.Writers like Angela Carter have shown that it is well within the capability of a fairy tale to reveal the complexities of human nature and the role of humans in nature with far more insight.

Perhaps at some point I will return to this collection to peruse some of the lesser known stories for some hidden gems, but for now my patience is spent. If anyone can give me a specific recommendation that gives the lie to the accusations I have laid out, I would hear it gladly. Until that time “A Jew in the Brambles” can wait.

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review 2015-09-20 16:49
Tales of Hoffmann - Vernon Humphries,Stella Humphries,R.J. Hollingdale,E.T.A. Hoffmann

What role does art play in the pursuit of happiness? Does it mine all the beauty in the world and then refine it until the ore has been purified into unadulterated gold, or does beauty only enchant us the more because of the dross from which we try to separate it? Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, though a Romantic compelled by beauty, rarely, if ever, rewrote the world to fit an ideal. He chose rather with horror, humor, and happiness all distilled together to write a compelling string of tales in which the ideal of beauty compels characters to extraordinary deeds, but often confounds those same characters by allowing beauty to slip through their fingers as they try to perfect it, or presenting them with the ore whole from the earth, and finding that one possess happiness by accepting the mundane along with it.


Hoffmann’s casts of beautiful lovers, and horrific grotesques muddle through a series of adventures in which their artistic aspirations, their worldly concerns, and their erotic endeavors all swim together like milk, oil, and water, dovetailing one moment, and flying asunder the next as each gallery of characters tumbles on into a thoroughly satisfying denouement. The eight variations on a theme here present, though overlapping in many obvious ways, never fail to intrigue as one reads on. It is a treat to see which shape the protean beast will take, always the same at heart, but so fascinatingly fickle in its choice of form. The vein of melancholy that runs deep in a lot of great horror is in these stories, but what strikes one most is the shared presence of joy. Happy endings and tragic both populate the collection, and each is always tinged with a little of the other.

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review 2014-11-23 16:32
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian - Robert E. Howard

So often a reader’s patience flags when wandering back and forth between the seemingly warring ethea of pulp writers and literary authors. The callowness and triviality attributed to the former sends a reader to the canon of the latter, only to retreat from its frequent pretentiousness and self-righteousness. Of course, only the most misguided writers ever consciously attempt to improve their stories by bowdlerizing either of these elements completely. Even so, the substance-biased and the entertainment-biased schools of writing seem to often compete with each other to see who can find the happy medium most often. In recent years, several notable artists in the entertainers’ camp have taken a turn in the winner’s circle. A vocal and sizable contingent of critics have dared to acclaim the 21st century television dramas of David Chase, David Simon, Vince Gilligan, and Jenji Kohan as nothing less than the great literature of our age; Dennis Lehane-- a personal favorite-- has won comparable critical acclaim, and even a seat on Harvard’s faculty teaching creative writing thanks to his fast-paced crime thrillers.


A smaller, but no less vocal, contingent of artists, critics, and fans have attributed similar success to the pulp writers of the early 20th century. Robert E. Howard-- along with H.P. Lovecraft-- stands as the reigning king of this community, and Conan the Barbarian universally heralded as his finest creation. Having now read the first of three volumes containing Howard’s original Conan stories, I cannot help but square Howard off against the entertainment-biased writers of more recent years. Overall, I have to say the Conan stories hold up pretty well. Though Howard often uses sex and violence, the staples of most popular fiction in any medium, for escapist ends, his best stories manage to offer an insightful take on the occasional usefulness and the eternal inescapability of violence, though he handles the sexual dynamics of his stories with overall less aplomb. And unfortunately, for every superior story he writes, Howard pens five to ten unremarkable yarns. Even Conan’s superior adventures still offer less intriguing explorations of survival, barbarism, civilization, and sexual politics than one can find in Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro novels or Chase’s The Sopranos.


Of the two elements, violence is, as I said, the most virile chamber in the heart driving the Conan stories. Whenever Howard is not pitting Conan against a supernatural horror or a gigantic snake, he transplants Conan into a civilized milieu, where the barbarian’s uncivilized and forthright nature draws him into conflict with individuals in whom civilization has bred perverse desires alien to Conan’s upbringing in the wilderness. Howard claimed that he found the cliché of the noble savage inaccurate, and tried to inject some biting realism into his portrait of Conan; sometimes he even succeeds. Conan’s adventures are exciting, but Patrice Louinet says quite rightly in his preface that great cataclysms both  precede and succeed those adventures, consigning all Conan’s achievement back to dust, which the barbarian himself muses on in a fit of melancholy in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword.”


However, in that little detail lies Howard’s frequent failing; this musing is all but expunged in the final version of “Phoenix,” and the inferior stories in this volume depict Conan as no more than “a stately, god-like child of Nature, endowed with strange wisdom,” the very cliché that Howard says he wants to combat. I had hoped that clear-eyed insight would present itself in every story to varying degrees, but so often Howard abandons it completely for a paycheck. The inferior version of Conan, which Louinet and other Howard fans insist is the sole responsibility of Howard’s imitators, seems in fact to be Howard’s own creation to which he resorted whenever greater inspiration failed him. Howard demonstrates far more insight in his essay, “The Hyborian Age” than he does in the first third of his Conan stories: Gorm, the Pictish warlord evinces greater moral complexity than Conan. His rise to power illustrates the “grim, bloody, ferocious, and loveless existence” that Howard knows barbarism to be, and that twisted machinations dwell just as often in the heart of a barbarian as they do in a civilized individual.


Howard’s occasionally cloying attraction to barbarism seems to lie in its ability to endow strength or toughness. Howard does not err in wedding this toughness to a naturally heroic and morally upright individual, but Conan never loses an opportunity to credit his upbringing in the wilds with not just with his strength but with his heroism as well, and every damsel he rescues inevitably thinks to herself how wrong she was to look to civilized men for nobility when it obviously comes more naturally to an untamed Cimmerian like Conan. Howard also takes a false step in only labeling societies separated from civilization as barbaric in a potentially ennobling way. What is truly barbaric is having to struggle, not to thrive, but to simply survive. This struggle is the lot not just of primitive hunter-gatherers, but also of people living in a major city right at the heart of civilization. Dennis Lehane endows Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro with the same toughness that characterizes Conan, and they too possess strident moral compasses that drive them to heroic accomplishments. However, the tough neighborhood badge of honor they wear has a cynical side far more in evidence in both Lehane’s narrative voice, and in the voices of the characters themselves than that of Howard or Conan.


For all the flaws in Howard’s depiction of violence in his actual stories, he at least proved himself capable of occasional inventiveness. The sexual aspect of his stories, unfortunately, rises above tasteless pandering even less than the violence. Never at any point in these stories, does a woman appear who does not succumb to Conan’s charms. There are touches of personality to differentiate each of Conan’s damsels from each other, and they have other motivations aside from sleeping with the musclebound hero. However, Howard tramples even these meager accomplishments by only ever depicting Conan as a positive force in the lives of his love-interests, despite the reality that even a good guy will makes mistakes in any relationship. The only story in which Howard gave himself the opportunity to correct this imbalance is “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” in which Conan shows himself capable of rape. Unfortunately, Howard saves himself from having to fully contend with this more violent aspect of Conan’s character by whisking the would-be victim into the heavens before Conan can catch her. While it makes for an interesting story to have Conan unwittingly cross paths with a goddess, he also gives his hero an awkwardly clean record by not deigning to portray such an exchange to its fullest implications.


Just as Lehane exceeded Howard in his portrayal of barbaric struggle for survival, David Chase offers a far more varied and realistic array of sexual dynamics in The Sopranos than Howard does in The Cumming of Conan. While the iconic HBO drama never loses the opportunity to parade tits and ass before the audience, the characters who possess them are fully fleshed out in more ways than bra size. Tony Soprano’s relationships with his wife, his goomars, and his therapist never insult the viewer by omitting a darker side. Tony is a protective and even affectionate husband, but he often fights Carmela when she tries to assert her independence by starting her own bank account, or considers getting a job. And of course he cheats on her to devastating effect in more ways than one. Then there is the sainted Dr. Melfi, who admits to seeing why Tony is attractive to so many women, but possesses enough intelligence and willpower to see what a bad partner he would make for her, not to mention the fact the she is his therapist. Even when she contemplates relying on Tony for the protection she knows he would give if asked, she soldiers through on her own steam.


Given the superior way in which Lehane and Chase have managed to write exciting and titillating stories without sacrificing their realism, I have to recommend them before Howard’s Conan tales. However, I would still recommend them. Howard has a masterful sense of pacing, and though there are eye-rolling moments, the action never flags. His disjointed, episodic delivery is great fun, and his influence on the sword and sorcery genre alone is enough excuse to give the stories a read.

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review 2014-11-03 21:14
Irish Fairy Tales (January 2009) - James Stephens

Several months ago I read Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion Tetralogy. Her homages to  Welsh myths were lyrically told; they contained characters whose struggles and motivations were extraordinarily compelling, and the gender dynamics in particular were sensitively and insightfully written. Walton proudly expressed her loyalty to her source material, saying that she did not cut anything from the original Welsh tales, but only fleshed out what was there. Having been charmed by Walton’s stories, I eagerly took up my first selection from one of her influences. What Walton would go on to do for The Mabinogi, Stephens does here for several stories from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. Unfortunately, where Walton would add meat and viscera to her sources, Stephens just seems to repackage the same old bones, but in a neater package. Walton leaves one curious to peruse the original myths, because one has seen the enticing fruits it has borne when planted in a fertile imagination. Stephens collection mostly just leaves one dissatisfied. Stephens sometimes refers to other stories, but does not retell them in detail, even though the ones he does retell are not always as interesting as those only hinted at or possibly left completely out. One thirsts for the actual sources after reading Stephens because there is greatness hinted at, but not realized. That said. there are some beautifully written passages here, and the better stories are well worth reading.

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review 2014-10-28 00:38
Irish Fairy and Folk Tales - Paul Muldoon,W.B. Yeats

This trifle of a book has more value as a pocket encyclopedia for the basic categories of apparitions that haunt the collective Irish imagination than as a collection of stories worth reading in their own right. The collection does contain a few standouts: the few poems here present are especially beautiful, and “Flory Cantillon’s Funeral” was my particular favorite for its simple, haunting ending. The rest of the stories are not bad, but they either bluster on for two or three pages too many, or they feel grievously truncated. Many of the stories in each section cover very familiar tonal and thematic ground as well, so that soldiering through them all sometimes becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. Many of the stories have a grim moral backbone to them. Though hardly unforgivable in a fairy tale, the most heavy-handed examples, such as “Teig O’Kane and the Corpse” and “The Priest’s Soul,” contain only a few innovative grace notes to save them from complete mediocrity. These stories, and a few others, feature wayward young protagonists who convert to the straight and narrow only after a threat of death from an angel, mischievous trooping fairies, or some other righteous apparition. These stories are better left told by parents whose child’s hooliganism has worn their patience to the nub, rather than readers looking for an intriguing take on personal evolution and moral maturation. The humorous stories are most rewarding when told one at a time in a bar while trying to make one’s friends laugh rather than taken all at once in a sitting.


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