One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan al-Shaykh (Translator),

Way back in July I was looking for books to load up on my Kindle to read on vacation.  In an attempt to keep my book spending to a minimum, I frequently use Overdrive to check out books from the local library to read on my Kindle.

I remember want to read Hanan al-Shaykh‘s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights when it came out last year. I think I even checked it out from the library in hardcover but never ended up reading it.

One Thousand and One NightsGathered and passed down over the centuries from India, Persia, and across the Arab world, the mesmerizing stories of One Thousand and One Nights tell of the real and the supernatural, love and marriage, power and punishment, wealth and poverty, and the endless trials and uncertainties of fate. They are related by the beautiful, wise, young Shahrazad, who gives herself up to murderous King Shahrayar. The king has vowed to deflower and then kill a virgin every night—but Shahrazad will not be defeated by the king’s appetites. To save herself, she cunningly spins a web of tales, leaving the king in suspense each morning, and thus prolonging her life for another day.

Acclaimed Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh has selected nineteen of these stories, retold them in modern English, and knitted them together into an utterly intoxicating collection. In al-Shaykh’s hands, Shahrazad’s tales are lush and evocative, rich with humor, and utterly captivating.

Well, this year I managed to complete the task but forgot to post a review. This is my attempt to rectify that omission.

I found it fascinating. At times sophisticated and subtle at others bawdy and blunt; full of magic and supernatural events but also dealing with the basic human emotions and the highs and lows of life.

Having read a decent amount of folklore and fairy tale there was much that was familiar in style and structure but knowing almost nothing about the originals (if you can call the various collections that) I don’t feel particularly well positioned to judge this retelling.

There was clearly a feminist or female slant which gave the stories a unique angle. But I think I would have to read a more traditional version to see the contrast more clearly.

Here is the Library Journal:

Gone are Aladdin, Ali Baba, and even much of Sinbad, but what remains is a haunting collection of stories about women who, if not always heroic, are resilient, funny, sexual, and, above all, smart. Anchored by two central framing narratives, the tales lead into one another like a set of matryoshka dolls. The beautiful language is deceptively simple: readers are in danger of being lulled into marathon reading sessions.

Publisher’s Weekly:

These stories pulse with sex, magic, and moral ambiguities; while terrible violence underscores moments of pure beauty. Guests are invited into a home only to encounter terrible cruelty; a woman becomes king so she can be a beacon for her lost love; a man plucks his eye for the pain he caused his family. Why retread such well-worn territory? In her foreword al-Shaykh (Women of Sand and Myrrh) speaks of rediscovering her own Arab roots while recognizing the power these ancient women held. Suprising and delightful, al-Shaykh’s masterful work has restored the tale to contemporary relevance. 

In the end I am glad I found time to read this retelling. It is an entertaining and eye-opening exploration of a classic of literature and storytelling through a unique lens.

Maybe I will finally make time to explore the traditional versions of these famous stories.  Seems like a natural path for my occasional dive into myths, legends, folk stories and fairy tales.

The Council of Mirrors (The Sisters Grimm #9) by Michael Buckley

Do you ever get into a reading funk where nothing seems to click; where even normally favorite authors don’t give the joy they once did?  Well, in case this question didn’t give it away, I do.  Whether it is from stress or work overload or distractions, sometimes I can’t seem to get my reading rythym and books just don’t grab me.  In this case, I often have a hard time putting my finger on just how much to blame on my own funk and how much blame goes to the books.

So it is with some trepidation that I write to review the last book in one of my favorite series.  The Council of Mirrors is the ninth and final book in The Sisters Grimm series.  Here is the publisher’s blurb:

In the final volume in the Sisters Grimm series, Sabrina, Daphne, and the rest of the Grimms and their friends must face off against the Master to decide the fate of Ferryport Landing—and the world. When Mirror fails to escape the barrier using Granny Relda’s body, he turns to his plan B: killing all the Grimms so that the magical barrier collapses. In the meantime, Sabrina has gathered the other magic mirrors as advisors on how to deal with their mortal enemy. They tell her to join forces with the Scarlet Hand against Mirror, in exchange for offering all the citizens of Ferryport Landing their freedom. This final chapter is the end of the road for several beloved characters, but the conclusion is sure to satisfy devoted fans of the series.

Having read every book in this series pretty much as soon as it came out, I usually am so excited to finally dive into the latest.  But with the eighth book that enjoyment seemed to ebb.  And I had a similar reaction to the final book.

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The Inside Story (The Sisters Grimm, #8) by Michael Buckley

I am a big fan of this series but Book Eight: The Inside Story struck me as a little thin in places. It has sort of postmodern – or Jasper Fforde-ish – perspective as the characters are stuck in The Book of Everafter chasing Pinocchio and the Mirror through classic fairy tales while at the same time dealing with The Editor and his voracious revisors – hungry monsters who eat text and anything else that gets in their way.

Readers from the last book will recall that the sisters have to rescue their brother from the schemeing mirror who took him into the book – and chasing him Sabrina, Daphne, and Puck fell in as well.

The larger focus is mostly on Sabrina as she comes to grip with being a leader for her family and friends and her developing relationship with Puck.

In all the chaos and jokes about Fairy Tales there begins to emerge a backstory about Snow White and the history of the Everafters that seems promising but it nearly gets lost in the jump from from one Fairy Tale to the next.  The last third of the story picked up  the pace and there is still some funny lines and interactions but the story as a whole lacks the rhythm and pace of earlier stories.

I could be the simplified story – that is after all for young readers – just didn’t grab me this time, but for whatever reason I just didn’t enjoy the plot or the adventure nearly as much this time.

Still a great series and I will the read the next one I am sure – and I am looking forward to the conclusion of the series.

The Magician's Book by Laura Miller

Laura Miller had a problem.  When she was young she was absolutely captivated and enthralled with the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.  Given a copy of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by a school teacher she dove in an entered a new world.  Things would never be the same.

But eventually she grew older and began to find out things about Lewis and Narnia that changed her relationship with the series: the Christian underpinnings of the story, Lewis’s world view and political opinions, etc.  But as she pursued a career as a literary critic she decided to return to these books and she found there was still much about them that she loved.

The road that had once seemed to lead to free and open country had in reality doubled back to church.  Now I was trying to explain why my damning adolescent assessment of Chronicles wasn’t entirely sufficient, either.  As an adult, I’d discovered that I could follow Lewis pretty far without feeling obliged to return to Christianity, and that the old sensations of freedom, of wilderness in Narnia, remained.

She sets out to make sense of this journey.  The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia is her answer in book form.

I guess you would have to put Magician’s Book into the category of creative non-fiction.  Good thing too, because otherwise it would be hard to categorize.  Part memoir, literary criticism, biography, and current events reporting it frequently slides between childhood memories, academic criticism, Freudian analysis, personal opinion, and interviews with other authors.

Sometimes this manages to flow and hold together in a coherent way and at others the transitions are a little rough.  I found the sections dealing with Lewis’s faith and politics were the least convincing – but perhaps that is my bias – but the book as a whole remains an insightful and engaging look at Lewis and Narnia.

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