Review: Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales — #Diversiverse

27 Sep
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Cover illustration by Natalie Hinrichsen.

 

Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales. Foreword by Nelson Mandela. Various authors and illustrators. W. W. Norton, 2002. (also available as an Audiobook)

This review supports the #Diversiverse Challenge (by Aarti Chapati at BookLust) to promote a more diverse universe of reading and reviewing. It is also part of my series on beautiful book illustrations, in story collections for children and adults.

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When I first discovered this book, about ten years ago, I was very excited, not only because it is a beautiful book inspired by Nelson Mandela’s love of African folktales, but also because it has a new story about Hlakanyana, a character I had written about in The Fictional 100 (chapter 39).  Hlakanyana is a Trickster character who is important in the folktales of the Zulu and Xhosa people of South Africa.  Of the 32 stories collected in Mandela’s book, many of them are from the countries of southern Africa, but Nigeria, Morocco, Gabon, Central African Republic, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Congo are also represented with stories.  The book opens with a map showing the geographical distribution of the tales.

 

Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales, Map by Abdul Amien. (Digital image by Secrets of a Happy Childhood)

Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales, Map by Abdul Amien. (Digital image from Secrets of a Happy Childhood

 

These stories are brief yet still “rich with the gritty essence of Africa” (as Mandela writes in his Foreword).  Many are Trickster tales, irresistible in the ingenious way they both flout and reinforce social customs.  There are human tricksters, like Hlakanyana and Sankhambi, and animal tricksters, like Hare, Jackal, and Spider.  Some animals are not tricksters at all, but have other recurring symbolic roles (the regal Lion and mysterious Snake are examples).

The history of these tales is long and varied.  Every retelling of a folktale is unique–a new story–and Mandela is sensitive to the way these stories have evolved in the minds and words of different storytellers:

Because a story is a story; and you may tell it as your imagination and your being and your environment dictate; and if your story grows wings and becomes the property of others, you may not hold it back. One day it will return to you, enriched by new details and with a new voice.

Many voices are included in this collection (for a total of 19 authors), along with the imaginations of many illustrators (19 artists).  One blogger who reviewed this book (Moni Dani, Secrets of a Happy Childhood) noticed that, while all but one of the illustrators are South African, their styles are generally not traditional and exemplify the diversity of modern trends in African art.  Thus, Mandela’s collection is an exciting pairing, she finds, of authentic, traditionally told tales with a very contemporary type of visual art.  Let’s jump in and look at a few of them!

“The Enchanting Song of the Magical Bird” (recorded over a century ago by Pastor Julius Oelke in Tanganyika–now Tanzania; translated by Darrel Bristow-Bovey) is the book’s first story. It begins, “One day, a strange bird arrived in a small village that nestled among low hills.  From that moment on, nothing was safe.”  The giant bird swooped in and devoured all the crops in the fields and in the granaries. Even the animals–sheep, goats, and chickens–began to disappear. It hid in an old yellowwood tree when it wasn’t plundering the villagers’ food supply. They decided that the tree must be chopped down, and perhaps then the frightening bird would leave their village.  But whenever the men tried to chop the trunk of the tree, they heard “the honey-sweet song” of the bird, and they were transfixed. They couldn’t continue and gave up the attempt. (The description reminded me of Odysseus’ men rapt by the song of the Sirens.) They tried many times, but the entrancing song of the bird or the sight of its beautiful plumage stopped them every time. At last, the headman had the idea to send the village children to do the job, because, “Children hear truly and their eyes are clear.”  Amazingly, the children were not swayed by the charms of the bird, and they felled the tree, whose branches crushed the bird and killed it. This haunting story is so different from what I expected–the opposite of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, for example, where the children are led away by the charming Piper’s song.  Instead, the children’s innocence allows them to discern the evil hiding under the false appearance, the honey-sweet song and iridescent feathers.  And now for its beautiful illustration:

 

"The Enchanting Song of the Magical Bird," illustration by Piet Grobler.

“The Enchanting Song of the Magical Bird,” illustration by Piet Grobler.

 

“The Message” (Nama people, Zimbabwe; from Grandma Rachel Eises, as told to George Weideman; translated by Leila Latimer) is a story of miscommunication, teaching how death came into the world. It begins:

This is the story of Full Moon, Tick, and Hare, and the message that Moon sent to the people a long, long time ago.

This was no ordinary message! Indeed, it was a most important message. Because, you see, Moon does not really die. She comes back again, as we see each time at full moon. And Moon wanted the people to know this truth: “Just as I die and come alive again, so you also shall die and live again.”

Moon gave the message to Tick to give to the people in the kraal (an encampment of huts for a clan). First, Tick jumped onto the feathers of a sand grouse who flew away, so Tick did not deliver his joyful news to the people, some of whom were now sick and dying–he could hear their crying by the campfires. Then he jumped into the fur of a gemsbok (a gazelle), but it jumped swiftly away from the kraal. At last, Tick faithfully delivered the message to Hare, but Hare was, well, hare-brained and forgot the message, telling the people instead, “Just as I die and remain dead, so shall you die and perish.”  The sickest man in the village died that day. Moon was angry at Hare and threw a piece of burned log at its face; hare threw it back at the face of the moon, which now bears the dusty color of the ashes.

 

"The Message," illustrated by Robert Hichens.

“The Message,” illustrated by Robert Hichens.

 

“The Snake Chief” (Zulu; from Miriam Majola, as told to Diana Pitcher) is a beautiful story about the magic flowing from a mother and daughter’s love for each other. It begins: “Nandi was very poor. Her husband was dead and she had no sons to herd cattle and only one daughter to help in the fields.” One day Nandi went as usual to gather berries from the umdoni trees; she sold these berries to get food for herself and her daughter, but this day Snake was there at the tree, eating the berries. Nandi objected that he had stolen her berries and she would have nothing to trade for meat to eat. Snake did not threaten her, but merely struck a bargain. He asked, “What will you give me in exchange for the umdoni berries? If I fill your basket, will you give me your daughter?” Surprisingly, Nandi agreed, thinking she could elude the Snake by taking a circuitous route home. But no!–Snake soon appeared to claim the daughter, as promised. Nandi cried and objected, but her daughter honored her mother’s promise and welcomed the Snake, finding him food and caring for him. In the morning when Nandi woke, she found not Snake but in his place a handsome young man, likely a chief’s son, who would stay with them, herd cattle, and make their lives better as a faithful son-in-law. Love between daughter and mother, and the daughter’s kindness, had undone the enchantment on the young man.  This is a beautiful variation of the “animal groom” motif, known worldwide. The French story of “Beauty and the Beast” is another famous example, but in “The Snake Chief” it was the girl’s mother who made the bargain with the beast by taking berries, instead of a father who was caught taking a single red rose.  In both stories, family life was reinforced because parental love was transformed into stable marital love and the generations could move on in harmony.  I love the sweet illustration for this tale: the Snake coils around the scene of the loving couple like a picture frame, while mother Nandi looks on proudly.

 

"The Snake Chief," illustrated by Baba Afrika.

“The Snake Chief,” illustrated by Baba Afrika.

 

“How Hlakanyana Outwitted the Monster” (Zulu and other Nguni folklore; retold by Jack Cope) is a sequel to the story I retold in my Fictional 100 chapter about his outrageous misdeeds in his village.  This story tells another incident after he fled the angry villagers, and begins:

Hlakanyana had left his mother and run away from home because the warriors were hunting for him.  He walked along on his journey over the earth, but he had nothing to make music with and nothing happy to sing about. He was very tired and very hungry.

Trickster characters are always ravenously hungry, prey to their own unbridled appetites, and this is exactly what gets them into so much trouble! First, he catches a hare and cooks him, then makes a flute from the hare’s shinbone, because he loves to make up songs.  So far, no problem, but strangeness lays ahead for him. He encounters a clay monster on the ground, with grass growing on one side of his body (eek!)–the monster is eating a fresh loaf of bread and Hlakanyana manages to steal it.  The monster gets up and chases him into a hole under a tree, but Hlakanyana is clever and tricks the creature into letting go of his leg, making him think it is a tree root he has grasped. The illustration shows that Hlakanyana is no average naughty boy, but a mythic creature himself. To me, this story suggests a lesson about not being rapacious with the Earth, but sometimes letting it rest and keep its fruits, the grain so necessary for bread and for life.

 

"How Hlakanyana Outwitted the Monster," illustration by Neels Britz.

“How Hlakanyana Outwitted the Monster,” illustration by Neels Britz.

 

Oh, there are so many stories–about tree wives and wolf queens, and so much more. But I will stop now and just hope you will pick up this book for yourself, or enjoy the all-star Audiobook (described below).

  • Hlakanyana ranks 39th on the Fictional 100. On his page you will find some further information about him.

Related links:

I’m also counting this book toward my participation in the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge.

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Love and War: “Lies Told in Silence” by M. K. Tod–Review and Giveaway #franceBT

20 Sep

Lies Told in Silence bannerLies Told in Silence cover

Lies Told in Silence by M. K. Tod. Tod Publishing, 2014.

Near the end of Lies Told in Silence, M. K. Tod’s beautifully rendered story of a French family during World War I, her main character, Hélène Noisette, wonders to herself: “Is it the things you choose or the things you don’t choose that make your life?” In any novel about war, this has to be one of the central questions. It could just as well be asked by Natasha Rostova in War and Peace or Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Events people didn’t choose came to their doorstep, and character was shaped by the will to retain the power of choice in the face of those events and to exercise it wisely. Choices, very much limited by circumstance, present themselves like a great divide–life could diverge this way or that–and Hélène had to confront many such fateful choices. Tod shows them to us with sensitivity and respect for all her characters’ humanity.

The book opens in May 1914, when Hélène’s father, Henri, who works in the War Ministry in Paris, determines that it is no longer safe for his family to remain in Paris. Unwillingly, 16-year-old Hélène must move out of the city with her mother Lise, and her younger brother Jean. Her older brother, Guy, stays with his father in Paris to attend military school and prepare for the war. Mother, daughter, son, and Henri’s mother, Mariele, settle in the small town of Beaufort, northeast of Paris, at a family home once belonging to Henri’s sister. Neither Lise nor Hélène have been emotionally close to Mariele (Grandmère) up to this time, so it is an uneasy household at best. Hélène is miserable; she misses the excitement and variety of her life in Paris–her friends, her school–and thinks:

How can Grandmère be so content? Doesn’t she miss her friends and the theatre and the beautiful shops of Paris? Here we are stuck in a tiny backwater because Papa is worried about something that may never happen.

That was in June. By August, war had broken out in Europe and everything changed. It became clear that while Paris was threatened, Beaufort might be in the line of fire too. It seemed that Germany planned to march north through Belgium and then invade France from there. But all the family could do was stay put and wait, and learn to adapt to life in wartime, its shortages, and the need to be more self-sufficient if they were cut off from supplies and the resources of normal daily life. Something shifted for Hélène; she understood that if she wished to be more grownup she would need to start helping her mother and grandmother, learn the skills of life most needed in the situation they were caught in, and take her share of responsibility for boosting their morale. Months and years passed, and Hélène did indeed grow up:

All the vestiges of girlhood were gone. She no longer dawdled along the road or sighed over fashion magazines or complained about her lot in life. She read the newspaper with care and wrote articulate letters to her father and brother. She learned the difference between German, French and British planes so she could recognize any that flew near the house, knew how to bottle and pickle, when to prune their vegetables and how to repair the outside pump. … Hélène was busy all day and wore a look of quiet authority and purpose.

Most important, the women in the neat house in Beaufort came to rely on each other, seek each other’s counsel, and share the immense challenges of living. Tod’s novel is ultimately a love story, and it begins here, with the unshakable love that grows between Hélène, her mother, and her grandmother.

One day they can hear a repetitive sound that they realize must be artillery fire. It is undeniable what is happening, but Hélène cannot help but think, “No…war is for history books, not for us to experience firsthand. It’s for faraway places known only on maps.” But the war will approach them very closely indeed. Canadian troops will be stationed near them, making preparations and then fighting the battle to take Vimy Ridge. Hélène will meet a Canadian soldier named Edward Jamieson and discover the intensity of love in wartime. She will have to face the deep anxiety over the absent loved one’s safety, compounded by worry about whether love itself can survive the rigors of war.

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The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack. 1918. Library and Archives Canada (copyrighted).

The rest of the book tells their story, and I won’t reveal much more about it. I do want to say, however, that Tod uses letters very effectively throughout the book: between the Hélène and Edward, between Lise and Henri (another love story!), and between Guy and his parents, after he joins the army. We who are so used to instant communication by many means can only imagine how desperately people waited for those letters, with some news of their loved ones’ situation, physical well-being, and state of mind. In wartime, all communication, by whatever means, is threatened, and Tod makes this precious, fragile link between her characters stand out in many heart-rending moments.

Tod has a clear, flowing writing style; her prose spins out in a rolling, companionable way with just enough added description to create a sense of immediacy for the reader–so important to the success of any historical fiction. I found the setting of Beaufort natural and convincing, precisely because it was revealed in the daily activities of Lise, Hélène, Grandmère, and Jean–I felt I knew their clean and serviceable house, with its attic retreat for Hélène; the places in town and in the countryside they visited; and the townspeople they met. I was surprised to learn in the author’s note that “Beaufort” was a fictional town, because it seemed very real to me, and I was ready to add it to my next itinerary for a visit to France! The closest I might come would be Vimy, which is in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, on the border with Belgium. Here is a picture of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, dedicated in 1944.

Vimy Memorial

Field Marshal Montgomery visits the Canadian First World War memorial at Vimy Ridge, 8 September 1944

This novel was a five-star read for me, and I highly recommend it!

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Lies Told In Silence

[historical fiction]

 Release date: end of July 2014
at Tod Publishing

367 pages

ISBN: 978-0 991967025

***

SYNOPSIS

In May 1914, Helene Noisette’s father believes war is imminent. Convinced Germany will head straight for Paris, he sends his wife, daughter, mother and younger son to Beaufort, a small village in northern France. But when war erupts a few months later, the German army invades neutral Belgium with the intent of sweeping south towards Paris. And by the end of September, Beaufort is less than twenty miles from the front.

During the years that follow, with the rumbling of guns ever present in the distance, three generations of women come together to cope with deprivation, constant fear and the dreadful impacts of war. In 1917, Helene falls in love with a young Canadian soldier who was wounded in the battle of Vimy Ridge.

But war has a way of separating lovers and families, of twisting promises and dashing hopes, and of turning the naïve and innocent into the jaded and war-weary. As the months pass, Helene is forced to reconcile dreams for the future with harsh reality.

Lies Told in Silence examines love and loss, duty and sacrifice, and the unexpected consequences of lies. [provided by the author]

ABOUT THE AUTHORLies Told - M. K. Tod

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction featuring WWI and WWII. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED, was selected as Indie Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society.

In addition to her writing, Mary maintains the blog www.awriterofhistory.com  where she talks about reading and writing historical fiction.

She has also conducted two well-regarded historical fiction reader surveys and in her spare time reviews books for the Historical Novel Society.

M.K. Tod is delighted to hear from readers at mktod at bell dot net.

Visit her blog

Follow her on FacebookTwitterGoodreads

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I am pleased to include the following **GIVEAWAY** of Lies Told in Silence. To Enter the drawing, click on the entry form below. There will be 9 winners of an e-book (mobi or epub). This giveaway is open internationally.

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Lies Told in Silence bannerI encourage you to visit France Book Tours to find other stops–and more reviews by many delightful bloggers–on this book tour!

*Note*: I received an electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

How did I miss this? Review of The Fictional 100 in the IMSLP Journal

9 Aug

I just found this review of The Fictional 100 at the IMSLP Journal, which is the online journal of the International Music Score Library Project/Petrucci Music Library, or IMSLP. Since then I have compiled a fairly comprehensive catalog of music associated with each of the Fictional 100 characters.

Hamlet's theme, Act 1, opera by Ambroise Thomas

Hamlet’s theme from Act 1 of Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 opera

I hope this catalog will appear online soon, and I can report back with full information about it, along with my article discussing what I found when I went looking among the musical  riches themed for the great characters of world literature and legend. In the meantime, I am happy to share (belatedly) this review of The Fictional 100 book.

The Lady, the Unicorn, and Grendel: High Summer Read-a-Thon Wrap Up #HSReadathon

28 Jul

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I really enjoyed participating in the High Summer Read-a-thon! Despite a busy week with work demands, I finished one book and made good progress in two others. I looked forward to the focused reading time when I was able to grab it!

I finished The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, our July selection for TuesBookTalk Read-a-longs. My Goodreads review is here. Chevalier is best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which offers a narrative to accompany the creation of Vermeer’s famous painting. Once again, in The Lady and the Unicorn, she teaches well  the process of art-making–tapestry weaving, in this case–and engagingly imagines the lives of the people who commissioned and executed this ambitious project just at the turn of the 16th Century. The real series of six tapestries is currently housed in a dedicated room at the Musée national du Moyen Âge, formerly the Musée de Cluny. Its website gives a glimpse of some of them, but the whole set can be viewed online, something I did while reading the novel and especially after I finished it.

Lady and the Unicorn cover

I’m past the halfway mark in my reading of John Gardner’s Grendel–enough to catch the tone of its surly, surreal power. It feels as archaic as the world of the Beowulf poem–probably more so, since it is told from the viewpoint of the primeval, man-crunching monster. But very much as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster’s sad, frustrated musings become a satire on the human world he can never really enter. In Grendel’s case, it is especially a commentary on heroic poetry and the morality of masking violence in literary grandeur–the ways such art can distort our very memory of events.

Grendel cover

As I read, I was also struck by Emil Antonucci’s cryptic interior illustrations of the hairy Grendel’s face, which headed each chapter. In profile (below), his features were discernible, but when he was shown facing forward, the features were hidden and then gradually emerged like a visual illusion.

grendel by emil antonucci

I became quite absorbed in Elizabeth Gilbert’s impressive novel The Signature of All Things. I decided to concentrate on it rather than splitting my time between it and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which I had just begun. I ended up reading about one third of Gilbert’s botanical family-saga, and so much has already happened! I will return to say more about this one when I’ve finished it.

Signature of All Things cover

Here is a summary of my reading for the week:
1. The Lion and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (finished).
2. Grendel by John Gardner (halfway done).
3. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gardner (one third done).
4. Beowulf, trans. by J. R. R. Tolkien, intro. By Christopher Tolkien (read introduction and a good start on Tolkien’s magnificent prose).
5. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (just a taste so far, but good).
6. Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter (didn’t get to this one, except for the Prologue).

Big thanks to Michelle, who is indeed The True Book Addict, for organizing and hosting the event at Seasons of Reading! I’ll be back next season!

Related post:

Beowulf, Grendel, and The Goldfinch: High Summer Read-a-thon #HighSummerRAT

19 Jul

high summer read-a-thon 2014 (437x600)
I am delighted to be participating in the High Summer Read-a-thon hosted by Michelle, The True Book Addict, over at her Seasons of Reading.  I’m planning on a small menu of reading options for the week. First, I plan to read two books for an upcoming Fictional 100 post: Beowulf in the J. R. R. Tolkien translation, newly published by Christopher Tolkien, and as a companion, Grendel by John Gardner.
tolkien-beowulf-339x500Grendel cover
I’m reading The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier for TuesBookTalk Read-a-Longs.

Lady and the Unicorn coverI’d like to make a start on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

The Goldfinch coverSignature of All Things cover

 

Finally, I plan to begin Last Bus to Woodstock, the first Inspector Morse mystery by Colin Dexter. I’ve been following the Endeavour series on MasterpiecePBS, and the finale airs this Sunday evening. Although I’ve watched and appreciated John Thaw’s signature portrayal of the mature detective, young Endeavor Morse, played most winningly by Shaun Evans, has finally gotten my attention enough to explore reading the mysteries!

Last Bus to Woodstock coverI’m glad to have the focus of the Read-a-thon, for one week at least! I will report back in a wrap-up post next week, and later in a review of Tolkien’s Beowulf.

An Illustrated Ramayana for Kids: “Rama and Sita – Path of Flames”

26 May

Rama and Sita - Path of Flames cover

Rama and Sita Path of Flames, told by Sally Pomme Clayton, illus. by Sophie Herxheimer. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2010.

Storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton is equally adept at performing her stories for an audience as she is at committing them to the printed page. When she set about retelling the Ramayana, the two-thousand-year-old epic love story of India, she brought the oral storyteller’s sense of immediacy into the book right away, with a charming frame story. In it, she, the author, visits a junk shop and buys a brown wool monkey, a knitted toy that surprises her by speaking as soon as they are outside. He announces he is Hanuman, the Monkey God, the Divine devotee of Rama and Sita. The author is skeptical of this, since his tag says “Made in China.” Hanuman explains that he has traveled widely over the centuries–from his home in India to Indonesia to Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and now a shop in Britain–and he says,

wherever I go, people think I belong to them. … I’ve been traveling for two thousand years. You see, I love the story of Rama and Sita, and wherever it’s told, I’m there too, listening. It’s a brilliant story, it’s got magic and adventure, scary bits and funny bits–and I’m in it! You’re going to be telling the story next, aren’t you?

A great way to start.

Clayton’s style is conversational without being too informal, and she packs incidents into her narrative with brisk economy, keeping many important details. But Rama and Sita Path of Flames is also a wonderful picture book–the second in my series featuring notable illustrators and illustrated children’s books. The illustrator, Sophie Herxheimer, paints her characters with black brush strokes and colored wash, and the figures float freely around the white pages of text without any tethering landscape. The focus is squarely on the characters, from the most beautiful–Sita and Rama–to the most bizarre–the rakshasas (demons), with fearsome faces, often several, on many heads! The main arc of the story can be mapped as:

Miraculous Births–Marriage Test of Sita–Exile of Rama and Sita–Abduction of Sita–Rescue of Sita–Trial by Fire–Restoration.

Both Rama and Sita are born in answer to fervent prayer by their royal parents after a period of intense yearning. They have a divine destiny to restore cosmic harmony, which has become unbalanced through the incursion of too many demons into the human realm. Rama is the eldest son of King Dasharatha, the son of the king’s first wife; he has three brothers, born to his father’s two other wives, and the four brothers are all mutually devoted. Sita is the daughter of King Janaka, whose prayer was answered when he discovered a beautiful infant girl in the “furrow” (sita) of his field one day; she was a gift of the Mother Goddess Shri, her essence in human form.

When she was fully grown, Sita chose her husband in the swayamvara ceremony, in which suitors would vie to perform the marriage test she set them: to lift the great god Shiva’s golden bow. After many tried and failed to budge it, Rama was able to lift it easily, and even bend it to be strung, breaking it in half in the process. Sita accepted Rama as her husband, and they were happy for a time, until King Dasharatha was swayed by his jealous second wife to install her own son Bharata as his royal successor, displacing Rama. She further demanded Rama’s exile from the kingdom. Bharata objected fiercely to this, but obedient to his father, Rama accepted this hardship without complaint, as did Sita. Rama and Sita retired to the forest, along with Rama’s brother Lakshmana. The loyal Bharata placed Rama’s sandals on the throne in his stead, until his hoped-for return someday.

Although Rama and Sita managed well in the simple life of the forest, they were no longer as safe from the designs of the demons abounding there. Ravana, the ten-headed king of the demons, was obsessed with Sita’s beauty, and plotted to take her for himself. Both Rama and Lakshmana were lured away by illusion and trickery, leaving only a magic circle in the dust to guard Sita. Ravana quickly took advantage of this and put the rest of his plan to work.

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Sita was not only beautiful but kind-hearted and virtuous, so Ravana lured her out of the circle by posing as a holy man, in need of food and water. When she stepped out to help him, he grabbed her and, resuming his fearsome demonic form, he summoned his magic chariot to fly them both to his kingdom in Lanka (Sri Lanka). The abduction of Sita is a dramatic climax of any version of the Ramayana, and artist Sophie Herxheimer makes the most of it with one of her most striking drawings:

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In traditional Ramlila re-enactments of the story, the actor portraying Ravana wears a headdress with the required nine additional heads. I like how Herxheimer’s drawing is able to make the demon faces and arms cluster around Sita who is terrified and screams for help.

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Rama and Lakshmana realize they have been tricked and begin their journey south to rescue Sita. They will enlist the aid of Sugriva, king of the monkeys, who sends his army to help them. Their heroic general Hanuman is a divine being distinguished by his deep devotion to Rama, whom he recognizes as an incarnation of the great God Vishnu. Hanuman is equally devoted to Sita and his outsized courage, along with Rama’s strength and devotion to her, will lead them all to prevail over the demons. But the detailed working out of this rescue is a wonder I will not spoil for any reader who is happily encountering this story for the first time!

The Ramayana is also a reflection of an ordered society, so the drama is public as well as a private emotional struggle. When Rama rescues Sita, his own jealousy is compounded by the societal norms that a wife will not spend time alone, unchaperoned, in the company of another man. The complexity of Rama’s doubt and Sita’s courage in demonstrating her faithfulness and integrity form the finale to the story. It is indeed a “path of flames” because Sita calls upon a trial by fire to uphold her innocence. Her purity is untouched, even walking through flames, and she is restored to Rama, their happy marriage, and a peaceful kingdom, where Rama and Sita will now rule as king and queen.

And what of Hanuman? He stays with them in humble service. Because he holds Rama and Sita in his heart at all times, he is a supreme model of devotion to God.

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This retelling for children ends here, but the Ramayana tradition includes a further postscript where Rama once again allows himself to be swayed by doubts and gossip about Sita’s innocence. (Anyone who has ever watched tabloid television will know how readily people can sometimes entertain the worst notions about their neighbors, especially those who are famous.) Brave Sita is once again exiled, but this time by Rama himself; she is already pregnant and takes shelter with the sage Valmiki, the very poet who will sing this story, the Ramayana. Rama is eventually united with his twin sons, Lava and Kusha, but Sita returns to Mother Earth. Knowing this, I am reminded of the prophetic words early in this book, when Sita and Rama are first exiled to the forest by Dasharatha: “Sita had been born from the earth, and Earth took care of her child.”

There is no shortage of illustrated versions of the Ramayana for children, including the Amar Chitra Katha series of comics, popular among both children and adults.

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The stories and characters which endure invite endless realizations by authors and illustrators. I recommend Rama and Sita: Path of Flames most highly as a witty, accessible retelling of this great epic of India, beautifully enhanced by its illustrator. Artist Sophie Herxheimer has posted a delightful video demonstrating how she works, brainstorming with brush and ink in hand to come up with new ideas for illustrations. She is a very entertaining teacher! At Sally Pomme Clayton’s website, you can see a video of her live storytelling of Rama and Sita: A Path of Flames, accompanied by tabla, violin, and other instruments.

Sita is 20th on The Fictional 100.

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Don’t Miss…Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (2014)

16 May

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I saw Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return in a multiplex on Sunday of its opening weekend–Mother’s Day afternoon. I didn’t expect to see many kids in the audience on this particular holiday, but the ones who were there sounded delighted with it, and so was I! This 3D animated musical sequel to The Wizard of Oz was visually inventive, with a charming story, attractive new characters, and some beautiful songs. It pulled in only 3.7 million in box office receipts, coming in 8th for the weekend. I hope those who passed it up on its first weekend will give it another look. It includes plenty of Oziana references, enough to entice committed Ozophiles (Ozmaniacs?), but anyone who has enjoyed the classic 1939 film or read any of L. Frank Baum’s books will get the jokes and feel a tug of nostalgia too.

Legends of Oz loosely follows the plot of Dorothy of Oz (1989), written by Roger S. Baum, L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson (in fact, the original working title of the film was Dorothy of Oz). Just as the MGM musical made some creative changes when they adapted L. Frank Baum’s original story for the screen, Legends of Oz has made some significant changes when adapting his great-grandson’s tale.

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Let me set the scene as the movie does: Dorothy wakes up in her room in Kansas, and she is joyfully reunited with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. But their house and surrounding farm buildings are badly damaged by the tornado. The first problem they face will be a visit from a shady appraisal agent, voiced by Martin Short, who wants to condemn their house and force them (and their neighbors) off their property. This Appraiser is the “Miss Gulch” of the film; in Oz, he will appear again, but in the form of a villainous Jester (also brilliantly voiced by Short). Time has passed much faster in Oz. The Jester now wields the wand of his sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, and has used its power to wreck the Emerald City and oppress its citizens. Therefore, while Dorothy is wondering how she might help her Aunt and Uncle and save their farm, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are trying to call Dorothy back to Oz to save them from the Jester.

In any Oz sequel where Dorothy will play a role, some method has to be found to get her back to Oz! For example, in Out of Oz (2011), the last book in his “Wicked Years” series, Gregory Maguire made use of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to open a portal from California to Oz–echoing L. Frank Baum’s own sequel Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (1908). In the Legends of Oz film (as in Roger S. Baum’s Dorothy of Oz), Dorothy knows that things are getting unusual again when she sees a giant rainbow racing towards her. One end snakes across the prairie and finally lifts her and Toto up, sliding them along on a fast trip to Oz. The rainbow was sent by the brainy Scarecrow who has rigged the machine in the Wizard’s chamber for this purpose, but the Jester and his flying monkey henchmen arrive and interrupt Dorothy’s flight; suddenly she is deposited not in the Emerald City but in the Gillikin Country. In her adventure-filled passage from there to the Emerald City she will encounter the important new characters of this story, including: Marshal Mallow, an officer in Candy County; the China Princess, ruling over her lands protected by the Great Wall of China (!); Wiser, an enormous, loquacious Owl; and Tugg, a boat built with the help of the Talking Trees. Together they will battle the Jester and try to restore beauty, peace, and equilibrium to Oz (until the next sequel!).

The beauty of the art direction (especially all the porcelain people in the Dainty China Country) and the creativity in the animation made it a delight to watch throughout. In one early scene, the Jester demonstrates that he can’t ever remove his parti-colored harlequin costume because of his wicked sister’s curse: every time he tries to pull it off, it just changes to new colors, switching faster and faster without ever releasing him. Marshal Mallow is an adorable creation, genuinely sweet, although he looks like a very stately, uniformed Muppet: the two marshmallows forming his head are hinged to let his jaw work. His character is voiced by Hugh Dancy, whose rich singing voice makes the song “Even Then” perhaps the most memorable of this lovely and lively score. Megan Hilty (from Smash) plays the haughty China Princess perfectly and sings with Dancy. But the story is really all about Dorothy–from the moment she put on her spunky cowboy boots and started to sing, I felt confident of this Dorothy. Lea Michele gave her a bright, youthful voice and a convincing range of emotions; her effective acting carried through her solo song, “One Day,” and all the songs, and this film is fortunate indeed to have the benefit of her vocal power and expressiveness.

On his website, Roger S. Baum wrote:

We have only to look at the fact that Oz has just passed its 100th Anniversary and is just as popular as ever. America’s greatest fairy tale continues to send us on a wonderful journey, from which we never tire.

Perhaps, the secret, why it remains a modern fairy tale after all these years, is hidden within the story. Herein lies the truths of courage, wisdom and heart and to these three we can easily mix a foundation of good faith, love and understanding.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return respects this tradition and adds to it with distinction. And I’m so glad it was a musical!

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Dorothy Gale ranks 83rd on The Fictional 100.

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A Mother’s Pilgrimage: “A Star for Mrs. Blake” by April Smith (France Book Tours #franceBT)

10 May

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A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith. Knopf, 2014.

A Star for Mrs. Blake begins well, continues well in the middle, and finishes well–this is deft storytelling that April Smith has honed in her Ana Grey mystery thriller series and in her writing for television. Any reader can be grateful to be in such confident authorial company. Yet, clearly, this book goes beyond its sureness of craft: it’s the product of Smith’s passion for her subject over many years of research and thought about the real people making the Gold Star Mothers pilgrimages to the American cemeteries in France in the early 1930s. The characters she has created are fictional, but fashioned from genuine historical detail, which is meaningfully applied throughout.  Because this novel is shaped by the course of a very special pilgrimage, it makes sense to talk about it in terms of the sequence of stages through which anyone on pilgrimage will likely pass. I’m adopting the stages mapped out by Phil Cousineau in his book The Art of Pilgrimage, which in turn draws on the “hero’s journey” made famous in the writings of Joseph Campbell.

First, there is the Longing; for mothers whose sons had died in the First World War and were buried overseas, the longing was persistent and palpable. The first such mother we meet in the novel is Cora Blake, a librarian and single mother in Deer Isle, Maine, raising her three nieces and mourning the loss of her son Sammy who was killed in Verdun in October 1918. The hard decision many families made not to bring their children’s remains home from the battlefield was a lingering wound; the longing to visit these graves was acute, yet such a trip seemed out of reach. The Call came in 1929, when the U.S. Congress passed legislation which enabled mothers to go on pilgrimage, courtesy of the government, to their sons’ graves in Europe. For Cora Blake, her personal call came in February 1931 when she got a letter of invitation from the War Department. (Here is a sample set of documents sent to a Gold Star Mother in 1930, including invitation, letters, and a handbook of general information for her trip.) Cora learned that her fellow pilgrims would be four other mothers–all very different from each other–and together they would make up “Party A”; they began to exchange letters and prepare for the momentous Departure in June. This part of the story reminded me in a way of Enchanted April, from the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, in which a small group of women who were strangers to each other and from diverse circumstances made the decision to take a trip to Italy together.  The Gold Star Mothers in Party A were on a very different sort of journey, yet it shared some of the same elements of adventure and assertion of personal independence.

Just as Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn before setting out on the road, Party A all had to assemble at their hotel in New York City before boarding an ocean liner bound for the port of Le Havre, France. Cora came by train from Bangor, Maine, stopping in Boston to meet another mother in her group, an Irish maid named Katie McConnell. One by one, the pilgrims arrived, were introduced, and joined the preparations for the European voyage. Smith has brought to convincing life five women with very different temperaments and histories; the incidents along their pilgrim way flow very naturally from these women’s lives.

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In venerable medieval fashion, the pilgrims all received special bronze badges to wear during the whole trip. These badges identified them as Gold Star Mothers wherever they went. Smith describes what one woman, a Russian immigrant named Minnie Seibert, felt as she looked around the room where many parties of mothers were seated for a welcome luncheon:

“Every woman at the table–everyone in this enormous room–fat ones, skinny ones, ugly, whatever–wore a Gold Star badge. Abraham [her husband] of course had refused, but Minnie had dutifully worn the torn black ribbon of the mourner for seven days after they got the news that Isaac had been killed–but thirteen years later you didn’t go around wearing a badge. Here, you did. Because, like the rabbi from Bangor had said, the consolation for a mourner is that she shares with others not only this loss but all the misfortunes that come of living a full human life. Here, among those others, Minnie knew she belonged.” (pp. 80-81)

This passage expresses Minnie’s thoughts, but it also captures the anguish and isolation each of the mothers had experienced; losing a child to war still separated them from others despite the intervening years.

Once they arrived in France, the stops along the Pilgrim’s Way for these mothers included several days in Paris, not only as tourists but, it became apparent, as goodwill ambassadors for the American military–not a role they consciously chose or endorsed. The mothers were the focus of much attention, most of it welcome and gracious, but some of it problematic and intrusive. As anticipation was building to get down to the real business of the trip, the women confronted painful questions about the war and the meaning of their sons’ deaths. In terms of the hero’s journey, they found themselves in the Labyrinth, which is sometimes called the Descent, the most confusing and potentially hellish time. Pilgrims in the Labyrinthine part of their journey are often assisted by guides: in this case, Lt. Thomas Hammond and nurse Lt. Lily Barnett, who led Party A; and news reporter Griffin Reed, himself an injured WWI veteran, who would have a special influence on Cora’s life. The Arrival at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery where their sons were buried brought this phase to a climax; the series of visits they made there was handled with tremendous sensitivity and insight by Smith. I was frankly in awe of the beautiful construction of the plot at this point–which I WON’T reveal!  It felt like being there with the mothers and then watching the unexpected unfold. Here is the Meuse-Argonne cemetery as it appeared in 1930.

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This picture suggests the immense impact of arriving there, trying to take in the rows upon rows of graves, and then finding the special one with a beloved son’s name on it. Cora had “always imagined Sammy falling alone in suspended space like a stage backdrop, but now she saw a marble forest of young men who were dead, and knew that Sammy was, had been, and always would be in their company.”

The last stage of the hero’s journey–and these pilgrim mothers do emerge as heroes–is Bringing Back the Boon, receiving the gift or gifts from the experience. These can be tangible (crucial objects, talismans, or “souvenirs”) or intangible gifts (knowledge, awakening, and healing)–usually both. Again, this story stars in its unsentimental and emotionally powerful treatment of the resolution for each character. The important thing about going on pilgrimage is that whatever you could imagine ahead of time, you can never really know what it will mean to you until you go there yourself. The same is true of A Star for Mrs. Blake: only by traveling its road and reading to the end can you bring back the boon of this beautiful book.

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I am working with author April Smith on a virtual tour for her historical novel: A Star For Mrs. Blake.  Please pay a visit to other stops on the tour at http://francebooktours.com/2014/03/19/april-smith-on-tour-a-star-for-mrs-blake/.

SYNOPSIS

In 1929, The U.S. Congress passed legislation that would provide funding for the mothers of fallen WWI soldiers to visit the graves of their sons in France. Over the course of three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made this trip.  Smith imagines the story of five of these women, strangers who could not be more different from each other. One of them is Cora Blake, a librarian and single mother from coastal Maine. Journeying to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the lives of these women are inextricably intertwined as shocking events – death, scandal, and secrets – are unearthed. And Cora’s own life takes an unexpected turn when she meets an American, “tin nose,” journalist, whose war wounds confine him to a metal mask.  [provided by the author]

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Release date: January 14, 2014
at Knopf

ISBN-13: 978-0307958846

Hardcover, 352 pages

Purchase the book

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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April Smith is the author of the FBI Special Agent Ana Grey mystery series, starting with North of Montana.  She is also an Emmy-nominated writer and producer of dramatic series and movies for television.  She lives in Santa Monica with her husband.

Visit her website.
Get in touch with her on Facebook and Twitter

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*Note*: I received an electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

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Glorious Romp: Sara Fanelli’s Illustrated “Pinocchio”

29 Mar

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Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, illus. by Sara Fanelli, trans. by Emma Rose (Candlewick Illustrated Classics). Candlewick Press, 2003.

This post marks the beginning of a series introducing some beautifully illustrated children’s books and fairy tale collections I’ve encountered over the past year. My first selection, Pinocchio, illustrated by Sara Fanelli (with a sprightly translation by Emma Rose) is so full of life and originality that it almost jumps up and runs away, as Pinocchio did when Geppetto carved his legs and feet! It is a remarkably fresh realization of this modern classic tale, which is indefinable as either a children’s or an adult’s book–it is both. She writes:

“Pinocchio was a part of my childhood: I was born and grew up in Florence, the birthplace of Carlo Collodi, and the puppet was present not just in the words of the book, but also quite literally in the everyday landscape, in the shop windows and markets. Children often sang songs and rhymes about him and sometimes I even used to put on a pointy hat and pretend I was a little puppet to my family.

When I first read Pinocchio as a child, I reacted against its moralistic undertones; when I read it as a grown-up illustrator I fell for the energy and surrealism of the puppet’s escapades.” [from the foreword]

Fanelli’s inventive collage art seems perfectly equipped to express the free-wheeling mischief of this iconic child and also his heart-tugging growing pains, when his explorations turn into mishaps or outright disasters. She uses bits of wallpaper, snatches of newsprint, cutouts from photos, graph-paper backgrounds, her own brush-stroke ink drawings, and “scribbles,” which she says “generate a sense of energy on the page.”¹ With this welter of materials, she controls her color palette (on the warm side) and achieves a convincing unity of effect, which is showcased in this beautifully produced treasure of a book. I can’t describe all its visual wonders–I hope you can see them for yourself–but here are some of my favorites.

I love her image of Pinocchio, with his green wallpaper pants and his pointy red hat (bearing part of a math diagram). He is bending over to peer into a blue bowl that’s printed like closely woven fabric. We know the bowl is filled with water because Pinocchio’s reflection fills its interior, and he is getting the first glimpse of his very improbable self. The cast of characters he meets are also created with delightful flair. We first see the blue-haired fairy girl as she converses with a fancy-dress poodle, who stands on his hind legs and looks out at the reader with a very human eye. The Blue Fairy appears to Pinocchio in many guises (once as a talking snail!) but above all she is a mother figure.² A charming page shows the little puppet embracing her in joy; behind him waits a photo-real plate of pasta and greens that the fairy has made for him. The scenes of some of Pinocchio’s most famous adventures are laid out in dramatic double-page spreads, such as the carnival-like puppet theater, with its colorful tent and gorgeous commedia dell’arte figures; the daydreamy schoolroom, where he tries hard to be a “good boy”; and the belly of the big shark, whose rows of white teeth border the top and bottom of watery, dark blue pages, as the story carries on in white type.

Fanelli’s enchanted Collage-land (a sort of Funland for the reader) is so enthralling that you may be surprised to wake up at the end and find that the wooden puppet has become a real boy–no, I mean it, a real Italian schoolboy shown top to toe in an old sepia photograph. Still, she puts a few marks of lingering enchantment on him–a blush spot on his cheek, drawn triangles for his hat and trademark nose, and a bit of white handkerchief in his pocket, embroidered with a big letter P.

Pinocchio is 59th on The Fictional 100.

Notes:

  1. This quote is from Joanna Carey’s detailed profile of Sara Fanelli’s work: “Dynamic Doodles,” The Guardian, April 16, 2004.
  2. I am not the first to wonder if the Blue Fairy could be a symbol for the Virgin Mary, who is usually dressed in blue. Especially for an Italian writer like Collodi, she would surely be a type, ready to hand, for depicting the pinnacle of compassionate motherhood. In fact, the story as a whole has other elements of Christian allegory, such as the carpenter Geppetto (Giuseppe, or Joseph) as the boy’s father, and Pinocchio himself dying into new life. (See Rebecca West, “The Real Life Adventures of Pinocchio,” University of Chicago Magazine, December 2002.)

“Collection of Auguries”: Stories by Annie Q. Syed–A Review

21 Dec

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How does a writer stir the bubbling pot of collective memory? With associations, puzzles, and snatches of the remarkable intruding on the everyday.  With unexpected encounters, putting seers–the wise men and women around us who are usually overlooked–in her characters’ paths.  With signs and stories ‘carried on the wind.’  Annie Q. Syed brings all of these to her new book of stories, Collection of Auguries.  Reading these stories again and again gives me that “tip-of-the-tongue” sensation that some memory is about to surface.  And sometimes it does! The emotional tone of these stories is unmistakable, like a just-barely-forgotten dream that still leaves a trace of feeling.

Many of the stories in the first part of the book are about miscommunication, about  people sharing their stories, attempting to recover meaning, and either talking past each other or misunderstanding because of their inability to adopt another’s frame of reference.  The opening piece is called simply “Stories,” and concerns two friends discussing the enigma of a man who stands dressed all in white, his face painted white too, who stands in the market square–“furnishing a silent benediction for bystanders.”  One names him X.Y.Z.–the unknown variable–and they consider the implications of all the conversations he must overhear from casual passersby:

“But Franz,” Tariro spoke quietly, for the first time considering X.Y.Z as a man who could possibly hear them and not just a breathing statue for staring at, “People don’t really talk to him –they talk to each other while near him.”

So?!” Franz exclaimed.

“Well, so…”

“You know people don’t really listen to one another. They only hear half. Half what they want and half what is being said,” said Franz matter-of-factly.  Then continued, “So X.Y.Z. absorbs in the half that is not heard but needs to be.”

In her stories, Annie Q. Syed tries to show us that other half, the part of the story that went unheard. “Love: Making Music” is a vignette of a couple misunderstanding what drives the other, in either love or music.  “Illumination” tells about a widower and a café waitress who try to connect through grief and remembrance but fail to find the words to bring them closer.  In “Memory of Silence” a father’s memory of a fishing trip with his own father spurs him to speak to his son rather than be silent.  The motivations that lead someone to create art recur as a theme in “Inspiratus,” “Ferraris & Lamborghinis,” and “While Sleeping.” The last of these offers the healing thought that “art brings to light what we forget is beautiful.”

The centerpiece of the collection for me is a set of four stories under the heading “DaVinci Dreams.” Each story begins with a quote extracted from “Prophecies,” part of The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, and then the story itself illustrates the intrusion of some uncanny but very real phenomenon. These are not fantasy stories, but slices of reality permeated by prophetic signs–“auguries”–that the participants must grapple with and interpret for themselves, to be able to move on with their lives. “Phantom Heart” and “Quietus” both deal with memory disorders and how a medical mystery can turn into a spiritual longing and quest.  In “Phantom Heart” a man no longer recognizes his wife as his wife, believing she has been replaced by an impostor (a condition called Capgras delusion); this story is especially poignant because it considers not only the man’s affliction but the fallout for his wife and for his daughter, who is trying to be a caregiver of both parents.  Merrick, the protagonist in “Quietus,” suffers from the delusion that “he” is not actually alive but “just an observer.”  He and his friend Frank go in search of a neurobiologist who can save Merrick from losing his sanity by explaining to him this strange dissociation from himself.  Between these two stories are two others, “Cradle of Stories” and “Time Blur,” united by their characters’ encounters with unlikely seer figures: a filling station attendant named Noor Baba (in “Cradle”), and an aged neighbor named Sarband (in “Time Blur”). Although not about explicit memory disorders, these stories still concern tricks of memory and the slipperiness of truth and self-awareness.  Fog is a powerful symbol in “Cradle of Stories,” standing for unconscious memories that rise, like fog lifting, but still may be hard to make out clearly. As Noor Baba says, “All stories come from the fog. You can’t do much though, if you are afraid of what you can’t see.”

Equally compelling, and perhaps even a little more mysterious, are the set of “Thais” stories that round out this collection. These are richly suggestive with Egyptian mythology, which seems to intersect with Thais’ lives (apparently she’s had quite a few of them!), throwing her back on ancient stories if she is to recover meaning and see “the dark matter within and without.” In “The Bridge” a seer figure named Gus leads Thais to stand on the bridge and peer down into the water, which both reveals and hides what she needs to see, as the fog did in “Cradle of Stories.” In “Maat” the Thais of ancient Egypt is a 12-year-old girl with recurring dreams of a tree and the goddess Maat. When these stories appeared in earlier form on Annie Q. Syed’s website, I posted a piece comparing “Maat” to “Phantom Heart,” exploring what I felt to be a deep symbolic connection between them.

In a “Note to the Reader,” the author shares her own love of storytelling and her reverence for stories as a pervasive binding force among people: “We are all storytellers.  We live our lives in and through stories as though this imaginary axis on which our planet rotates is made up of stories.” Some of the best stories seem to resurface in human consciousness again and again, appearing in a variety of forms, only to be lost again, leaving us puzzled about ourselves–a fundamental dis-ease.  Therefore, she says, “Anyone who feels compelled must write because people forget!” I’m so glad she did write these fascinating stories, and I hope to read many more from her.

Collection of Auguries by Annie Q. Syed is available at amazon.com and from McNally Jackson Books.

For more of her writings on many subjects, visit her blog “Trial of Words” at annieqsyed.com.

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