Monthly Archives: February 2012

Mermaid – Carolyn Turgeon

Ever since I read Phantastes: A Faerie Romance by George MacDonald which was described as a “fairy tale for adults”, and then later on, Snow, Glass, Apples, a short story by Neil Gaiman, I’ve wanted to read more of this “literary genre”, if it can be called that. Just like Gaiman takes the “Snow White” fairy tale and rewrites it into an amazing new story, I was hoping that Mermaid would go through a similar transformation.

This version of “The Little Mermaid” is actually not that far from the original – Lenia, the beautiful young mermaid, goes to the surface as part of her eighteenth birthday ritual, which all merpeople could follow if they so wished. There’s a terrible storm and she saves a young man from a sinking ship. She takes him to the shore, where Margrethe, the daughter of a king, finds him and saves his life.
The story goes back and forth between Lenia and Margrethe, with the prince in the middle – a love triangle which seems to stay pretty solid until the end. The drama comes not from the two girls trying to push each other out of the prince’s way but from the capacity of one of them to sacrifice herself so the other can have a chance at happiness as well. Lenia dreams of a marriage with the prince, a way to fulfill her love and gain a soul, something that merpeople did not have. Margrethe hopes that through a marriage with the prince, she can bring peace to a land torn by war between two kings, which seems a little too good of an excuse for her to marry the man she wants. In the end, only one of them gets her happily ever after.

As a fan of mythological creatures, legends and fairytales, I can say I have enjoyed this story, even though it brought too fewer new elements to the already known story of “The Little Mermaid”. I liked it because it managed to captivate my attention and to make me a part of that world – a nice diversion from my reading pattern. The writing is basic and unpretentious with romantic insertions but without being cloying.
Some of the paragraphs I liked:

“He was so beautiful. She had never seen anything so beautiful. But she could feel the life leaving him, and knew that she had done all she could do, that it was time to let other humans take care of him so that he could live. She looked up at the girl on the cliff, standing there watching them, transfixed. Her black hair blowing around her, her pale skin and brown eyes, her furs.
You, she thought again. Come now.”

“How can any of us tell when that thing comes that will make everything different? As she stood in the frozen convent garden at the end of the world, all those centuries before now, Margrethe had no idea that she was about to witness a miracle – the last mermaid to come to land, at the very end of the days when mermaids still longed to return to it.”

“Now, many centuries after those days when the mermaid came to earth and left it, after so many daughters and sons have been born, there are people all over the world who carry the mermaid inside them, that otherworldly beauty and longing and desire that made her reach for heaven when she lived in the darkness of the sea.”
*
I would recommend this book to someone who wants something easy and delightful to read, a reminder of a classic fairytale and an uncomplicated story that takes you away from the ordinary world. It may not be much in the way of surprises, but it is enjoyable nevertheless.

P.S. I wonder why the mermaid’s hair color on the cover of the book is not blonde like it was supposed to be in the story. Just a silly little detail that stood out for me. That, and the author’s name.

*Read in February 2012






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The Yellow Wallpaper and selected writings – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I’ve come across The Yellow Wallpaper in a collection of short stories, The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, and it left such a vivid impression in my memory that when I saw this book (a whole book!) by the same author I just had to read it.

This book is a collection of 20 stories and various fragments from the author’s biography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935). It starts with The Yellow Wallpaper, a story of a woman who finds herself slipping into madness after being confined to her bed to rest following the birth of her child. Day after day and night after night, with nothing to do but rest, which according to her physician husband was the best cure for her illness, she feels increasingly frustrated by monotony and boredom. And having an active and imaginative mind, she focuses her attention on the room’s deteriorated wallpaper. With each passing day she is convinced that someone is watching her, someone hiding in the intricate pattern of the old and torn wallpaper.

On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.
The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

***
It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.
***
There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself and that it changes as the light changes.
When the sun shoots through the east window – I always watch for that first long, straight ray – it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it. That is why I watch it always.

***
I really have discovered something at last. Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!

Written in 1890, at a time when a woman suffering from depression was treated with bed rest and as little intellectual stimulus as possible, this story comes as a revelation of what really goes on in the patient’s mind. Based on the author’s personal experience, it gives a detailed account of how she felt after her daughter’s birth, the severe depression she was battling and how the doctor’s recommendation utterly failed to improve her mental health.
The ending fitted very well with the gloomy, constricted, depressing atmosphere of the story – I’ve read the story twice and liked it just as much the second time. The writing is beautiful, not overly florid like you’d find in a classic story but not quite modern either – it strikes a beautiful balance and the most important thing of all, it creates a bridge between the writer and the reader that makes it easy to relate to the ideas that can be drawn from the story.

I enjoyed most of the other stories in the book, stories of women trying to find their place in society while at the same time living a fulfilling life that involved traveling, socializing and pursuing artistic occupations, things that would take them away from the traditional role of wife and mother they were expected to conform to.

In The Unexpected (1890), a young man becomes so smitten with “beautiful Mary” that he will do anything to marry her. And in the end, when he does get his heart’s desire, discovers she is not the “prudish New England girl” he thought she was, but a woman with artistic aspirations as great as his own.

An Unnatural Mother (1895) tells the story of a woman who is forced to make a terrible choice which leads to her death. Her decision is discussed and disapproved of by a group of women who knew her and criticize her upbringing, her marriage and finally the decision that took her life. Unable to see the big picture and the sacrifice she had to make, the women consider her a bad example and the attempt of the unmarried daughter of one of them who tries to bring about a different perspective is promptly dismissed.

Three Thanksgivings is the story of a woman who makes some drastic changes in order to be able to keep the house she’s always lived in. With two grown children who want her to come and live with them, and a creditor who offers to marry her in order to help pay for the house, this is the story of a woman determined to hold on to her independence even if that means she will have to resort to a daring plan. My hat goes off to you, Mrs. Morrison.

Turned – Mrs Marroner thought she was leading a charmed life – she had a loving husband, a beautiful home and a nice girl, Gerta, to help with the housework. And when two letters from the traveling Mr Marroner arrive at the house, the sweet illusion of a happy marriage comes apart in a flash.

An Extinct Angel compares women with angels, from the clothes they have to wear:

The amount of physical labor of a severe and degrading sort required of one of these bright spirits, was amazing. Certain kinds of work – always and essentially dirty – were relegated wholly to her. Yet one of her first and most rigid duties was the keeping of her angelic robes spotlessly clean.

to their duties towards the humans:

…but the fact was that the angels waited on the human creatures in every form of menial service, doing things as their natural duty which the human creature loathed and scorned.

and finally giving a reason to their extinction as a race:

But little by little, owing to the unthought-of consequences of repeated intermarriage between the angel and the human being, the angel longed for, found and ate the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge.

Mrs Merrill’s Duties asks an important question: can a woman be a good wife, a caring mother and a good friend, while at the same time trying to follow her own dreams? You will have to read the story to find out.

When I Was a Witch is an interesting story of one woman’s wishes come true. One day she discovers she has the power to change things by wishing, but this comes to an end when one of her wishes is different from the pattern the others were following. An interesting perspective on the nature of wishes, and a little unsettling.

These are just a few of the stories I liked from this collection; there is but one or two which I didn’t like as much as the others but I would have been surprised if I ended up liking them all.

*

The last part of the book, called “SELECTIONS FROM THE AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY” offers details about Charlotte’s life, with selected passages from various chapters describing her childhood, marriage, her depression, her work as a feminist, writing and traveling to give lectures at various gatherings. An ardent supporter of women’s rights, she wrote short stories, plays, essays and novels, trying to encourage women to see beyond their domestic roles as wives and mothers. This part of the book helped me to understand the stories better. To read a story is fine. To see where that story came from, the personal experience that was the germinating seed, growing into something impressive, that was much more satisfying for me as a reader and it added a depth to the stories itself, that certain something that would surely have been missed otherwise.

*

She was the niece of Harriett Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a fact mentioned in her autobiography where she described the house her aunt lived in and where, as a child, Charlotte had visited: “From her dainty flower pictures I got my first desire to paint,….”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a woman with unconventional ideas. Growing up in a broken family, with a childhood scarred by her parents’ separation followed by infrequent visits from her father, trying to obey an authoritative mother, she was a spirited child who once broke the silence in a classroom by saying a word out loud – asked by her teacher why she did that, she replied: “I wanted to see what would happen”. She had the courage to forge her own path, through depression, financial difficulties and criticism of her work.

These are just a few of the passages I liked.

After the break-up of her marriage:

Thirty years old. Made a wrong marriage – lots of people do. Am heavily damaged, but not dead. May live a long time. It is intellectually conceivable that I may recover strength enough to do some part of my work. I will assume this to be true and act on it. And I did.

On writing:

The writing similarly is easy and swift expression, running at the rate of about a thousand words an hour for three hours – then it stops, no use trying to squeeze out any more. Any attempt at forced work stops everything for days.

On depression:

A sympathetic lady once remarked, ‘Yes, it is a sad thing to see a strong mind in a weak body.’ Whereat I promptly picked her up and carried her around the room. ‘Please understand’, said I, that what ails me is a weak mind in a strong body.’ But she didn’t understand, they never do. Only those near enough to watch the long, blank months of idleness, the endless hours of driveling solitaire, the black empty days and staring nights, know.

On life and death:

I had not the least objection to dying. But I did not propose to die of this, so I promptly bought sufficient chloroform as a substitute. Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, misfortune or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.

I am most unconcernedly willing to die when I get ready. I have no faintest belief in personal immortality – no interest in nor desire for it.

The one predominant duty is to find one’s work and do it, and I have striven mightily at that.

*Read in February 2012






Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 15 Comments

One Day – David Nicholls

It’s been a while since I wrote a review, so that one day when I looked at my desk and saw five books (five, when did that happen?!) waiting there in a neat little pile I decided it was about time I said something about them before I forget. So there it is, I’m starting with the last book I finished.

One Day – David Nicholls

In my defense I have to say I didn’t choose this book. Some colleagues at work recommended it as an easy read (that, and also the fact that the term “chick-lit” was mentioned did ring a warning bell in my head which I chose to ignore) and one of them offered to lend it to me so I didn’t say no. I got bored about halfway but then having made it so far I decided to keep going in the hope that it will get better. It did, somewhere towards the end – there was a scene that made me feel something else other than annoyance and for that reason I’ll give it a 3 star rating instead of 2 (out of 5).

The book is about Emma and Dexter who spend a night together in their twenties, just after graduating from college. They remain friends for nearly twenty years, sharing events from their lives – fame, relationships, marriage, children, alcohol abuse and a thousand little details that make up a friendship. It is obvious that they are attracted to each other but the timing always seems to be off or they are unwilling to just come right out and say what they really feel. Their conversations have an edgy feel to them, being somewhere between amusing and annoying – sometimes it’s like watching a tennis match and trying to decide if they are playing a friendly game or they just want to win one no matter what.

The story flows along without major hiccups, there are even some references to books – Wuthering Heights is one but is not spoken about in flattering terms, Howards End is another – currently on my TBR pile but after reading A Room with a View I find myself reluctant to pick it up; a paragraph from Dickens’ Great Expectations makes and appearance right before Part One and there’s also one from Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

The reason why I stuck with the book to the end was that I wanted to see what happens – will they remain just friends or will they give love a chance? The end was unpredictable and I felt somehow rewarded for making it through to the last page.
The movie version was playing in the cinemas here not long ago but somehow I missed it. A friend said it was better than the book. Who knows, maybe I’ll watch it one day.

*Read in February 2012






Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 10 Comments

And the winners are…

Vishy and Kenisha!

The Gargoyle will travel to Madras, India, which is not that far away but to compensate for that, Little Bee (or The Other Hand, whichever name you prefer) will go all the way to Atlanta, U.S.!
It didn’t occur to me until now that both books have names of creatures that can fly. Go figure.
A big thank you to everyone who participated.






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