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.

Quick Hit: The Songs of Power: A Finnish Tale of Magic, Retold from the Kalevala

I don’t recall how I stumbled on a series of retold myths by Aaron Shepard but given that they were a penny it was an easy decision to pull the trigger and grab the Kindle version.

And given my interest in myths, fairy tales and legends it is not surprising that I enjoyed them.

Songs of Power focuses on the Finish Kalevala:

Not so long ago, in the tiny, isolated villages of Finland, where prolonged summer days gave way to endless winter nights, people would pass the time by singing the many adventures of their favorite heroes: the mighty, magical men and women of ancient days.

They sang of old Vainamoinen, greatest of sages and magicians, who helped create the world but never could find a woman to wed him. They sang of his friend and ally Ilmarinen, first among craftsmen, the blacksmith who forged the dome of the heavens.

They sang of Louhi, the ancient lady of Northland, whose crafty wit and magical powers made her a worthy opponent for Vainamoinen himself. And they sang of Aila, Louhi’s lovely daughter, who captured the hopes of the two old friends and drew them as rivals to the shores of Northland.

And while these songs could still be heard, there came along a rural doctor, a scholar, who gathered and wove them together in a book he called the Kalevala. And so he created for Finns a national epic, and for the rest of the world, a work of wonder.

The songs endure, the heroes live. . . .

I don’t really know enough about the Kalevala to offer much judgement about how Aaron Shepard handles this classic Finnish tale. But I did find it to be an engaging and imaginative introduction to this epic story.

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Book Giveaway: Win Philip Pullman's Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

UPDATE: I have changed the date to keep the contest open through today so any last minute entries are good.

I haven’t had a book giveaway here in some time but this book is special enough that I wanted to offer a chance for readers to get a copy.

Penguin Classics is bringing out a Deluxe Edition of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm:

Pullman GrimmFAIRY TALES FROM THE BROTHERS GRIMM is a retelling the beloved stories by Philip Pullman, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy—now with three new tales exclusive to the paperback edition. In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of Children’s and Household Tales. Now, two centuries later, fairy tales are once again all the rage with TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time dominating ratings and two movie adaptations of “Snow White” out in the same year. With FAIRY TALES FROM THE BROTHERS GRIMM, Philip Pullman brings these much-loved tales back to the page.

From stories like “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel” to lesser-known treasures like “The Girl With No Hands,” “The Three Snake Leaves,” and “Godfather Death,” Pullman retells fifty of Grimm’s timeless classics for the modern age in his lively, beguiling prose. He includes all the most familiar characters—Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, the Frog Prince, and Rapunzel—while also introducing readers to some they might not have met yet.

Pullman has consulted a variety of editions of the work to pull together a seamless version of each story that focuses on engaging readers and demonstrating exactly why these fairy tales have been told over and over again, remaining vibrant since their original publication in the early 19th century. With FAIRY TALES FROM THE BROTHERS GRIMM, Pullman pays homage to the tales of romance and villainy that inspired his unique creative vision—and that continue to cast their spell on the Western imagination.

I am a big fan of this book and am excited to read the new stories that have been added.  As I noted in my review:

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is a must read for anyone interested in folklore and fairy tales but it is also a great read for anyone interested in the art of storytelling and its impact on culture, language and the way we see the world.

So how do you get your hands on the book (and a free poster!)?  Simply leave a comment here with your favorite fairy tale and I will pick a random winner Wednesday, October 30.

 

Gilgamesh The Hero by Geraldine McCaugheran

Given my interest in mythology and storytelling you would think I would have read one of the oldest known stories in the world and one of the foundational myths of Western Civilization. But while I was aware of the epic of Gilgamesh I had not read the poem or any prose versions of the story. Until I stumbled on Gilgamesh the Hero, a version aimed at younger readers, at a library sale.  And I am so glad I did – besides getting a great book for a buck – because this was a great read no matter what your age.

Here is Kirkus:

McCaughrean turns in a robust, exciting rendition of the world’s oldest written epic. After many astounding feats, proud, powerful king Gilgamesh sees his beloved sidekick Enkidu die, and becomes terrified of doing the same. Abandoning self-respect, he searches the world for the secret of immortality, crosses the Waters of Death to hear the tale of undying Utnapisthim (better knows as Noah), and at last returns home, to make wiser bids for immortality by telling his tale, and raising children. Thanks to the former, as McCaughrean points out, he’s better known today than Ishtar, Enlil, or any of the other “immortal” gods he fought and worshiped. Enhanced by Parkins’s expressionistic tableaus of gnarled, dramatically posed figures, she relates his adventures with gusto-“Gilgamesh calmly strung his bow. ‘Don’t launch the funeral barge yet. What can go wrong with the two of us side by side?’ ‘Do you really want me to tell you?’ said Enkidu”-while vividly capturing his pride, soul-deep anguish, and the personal cost of his hard-won wisdom. The most riveting retelling yet of this ancient, ageless tale.

This is a perfect example of why I find these young adult illustrated readers a great way to explore myths and the power of story. You get a great story with powerful and evocative language, wonderful illustrations and an accessible introduction to a timeless tale. What’s not to like? Continue reading

The Necromancer by Michael Scott

Not sure why, but a bunch of authors I enjoy had book come out at the end of  May and, particularly given my constrained reading and reviewing time these days, this meant a  stacked up TBR pile. Choices, choices, isn’t that what is all about most days?

I had The Necromancer (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel), however, shipped to my Kindle as soon as it was released and read it shortly thereafter. This was exactly the type of reading I could enjoy as a reward for long hours worked.

I enjoyed the previous books in the series – my wife and I raced through them and were anxiously awaiting this latest volume in a planed six book series.  For those of you not in the loop – for shame! – here is the Amzon review:

The Necromancer, book four in Michael Scott’s “Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel” series, brings the immortal Flamel (The Alchemyst) and teenaged twins, Sophie and Josh, back home to San Francisco, where they meet up with the sorceress Perenelle, Flamel’s wife, who spent the last book escaping from Alcatraz. Time is running out for the Flamels; it’s now been six days since their foe Dr. John Dee (another immortal) ran off with the Codex, the book of Abraham the Mage that keeps them young, and they are aging fast. The twins, who have been learning the Elemental Magics over the course of the first three books, are worried about getting into trouble for basically disappearing for days, so they check in with their guardian, Aunt Agnes. But Scott doesn’t let them settle in for long. True to the break-neck pace of this series, they are quickly pulled back into the action when Sophie is kidnapped by a redheaded vampire who bears an eerie resemblance to one of their recent allies, Scathach, who disappeared with Joan of Arc in the last book. The Necromancer introduces readers to even more infamous immortals, while keeping up with favorites from past books–Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Billy the Kid. As the characters accumulate, so do the opportunities for hair-raising conflicts and insane reveals. Scott manages their multiple story lines with a sequence of cliffhangers that keep it a really fun read even as he is piling on the history and mythology, taking readers further into the secrets that will bring the whole story together. As the characters hurtle toward a conflict that could bring about the end of the world, we can’t wait to see where they’ll go, what they’ll learn, and who they’ll meet next.

This, at least to me, is not a stand alone book by any stretch of the imagination.  Instead it is a volume that begins to unwind and explain a complicated plot as the series comes to a close. As time seems to be running short on the Flamels the pace seemed to slow down and the mythological background comes more into focus. There is a major plot twist/revelation that I assume holds a clue to the ultimate resolution. Hard to believe there are two more books before the end.

The tension between Josh and the Flamels – and his sister – is ratcheted up and the good guys and bad guys – if you can figure out which is which – are converging and building to a climax (again, if you call it that with two books left).

This is an enjoyable fantasy thriller series but one of those where you race to read the book only to be forced to wait for the next release to dive back in again. But it is well worth the wait.

Atalanta and the Arcadian Beast by Jane Yolen & Robert Harris

A while back I stumbled on Atalanta and the Arcadian Beast by Jane Yolen & Robert Harris at Half Priced Books and picked it for a couple of bucks.  After having read the Merlin Triology by Yolen I decided it was a good time to check out this Young Hero Series.  I had already read one rendition of the Atalanta story (Quiver by Stephanie Spinner) so I was also interested to see how another YA author approached the story.

You really don’t need to know anything about the myth, however, to enjoy the story.  It really reads like a fast paced adventure story.  Here is the publisher’s teaser:

When her adopted father is slain by a strange beast, Atalanta is determined to take care of herself. She is happy in the forest with only her friend Urso — a giant bear — for company. She wants nothing to do with the world of men.

But the ferocious creature that killed her father is still out there, and Atalanta can’t resist the opportunity to hunt it down, even if that means she has to join forces with a group of hunters to do so. Atalanta must prove that she is as strong and brave as any of the others, as they search together for the deadly Arcadian Beast.

It is an interesting blend of action adventure and subtle explorations of issues like family, gender and identity that are so prevalent in Greek mythology

More below.

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Atalanta and the Arcadian Beast by Jane Yolen & Robert Harris

A while back I stumbled on Atalanta and the Arcadian Beast by Jane Yolen & Robert Harris at Half Priced Books and picked it for a couple of bucks.  After having read the Merlin Triology by Yolen I decided it was a good time to check out this Young Hero Series.  I had already read one rendition of the Atalanta story (Quiver by Stephanie Spinner) so I was also interested to see how another YA author approached the story.

You really don’t need to know anything about the myth, however, to enjoy the story.  It really reads like a fast paced adventure story.  Here is the publisher’s teaser:

When her adopted father is slain by a strange beast, Atalanta is determined to take care of herself. She is happy in the forest with only her friend Urso — a giant bear — for company. She wants nothing to do with the world of men.

But the ferocious creature that killed her father is still out there, and Atalanta can’t resist the opportunity to hunt it down, even if that means she has to join forces with a group of hunters to do so. Atalanta must prove that she is as strong and brave as any of the others, as they search together for the deadly Arcadian Beast.

It is an interesting blend of action adventure and subtle explorations of issues like family, gender and identity that are so prevalent in Greek mythology

More below.

Continue reading