Monday 26 December 2016

My 2016 in books

It's been so quiet on here recently. So much stuff takes a while to process, and I think Great Thoughts but then don't get the space to articulate them while they're fresh. Honestly, I might regain the habit in 2017, but something I did manage this year was to log everything I read on Goodreads. I'd rather have written a proper blog post about each, but that seemed a sheer steep challenge, whereas two lines on Goodreads was manageable. Something that's interesting to me is how some books can make a massive impression while you're still in them, but fade away quickly like a cheap takeaway, and some burn more slowly. This doesn't really get captured if you're logging and writing about books as you read them (but I wanted to do this for the sake of keeping my stats up) so I felt sure I'd enjoy looking over my list for the year to see what stood out.  

January 2016 - 7 books
 January usually starts with some impulse reads, picked up for peanuts in the kindle sale, and there were some turkeys in here. I didn't enjoy the Danny Baker autobiography anywhere near as much as I'd hoped I would, and War Horse was a proper letdown - yes, I know it's a children's book, but I really don't think that's an excuse. But it was my time for falling in love with a new author, too - Sarah Moss captured my soul and heart with Night Waking which I think I might reread once a year while my children are still even slightly small, and then Bodies of Light which is a sort of follow up, or maybe you'd call it a companion, was just as wonderful.  

February 2016 - 6 books
A funny one - I seemed to rate most things at four stars and I feel odd about the only one I truly loved - The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It helped me to crystallise a resolution not to read anyone else's Goodreads reviews before I wrote my own, because I want to be honest and also not to be influenced by others' strong feelings. So many people railed against this one but I can't help it, I loved it (though I remember so little about it already, beyond how much I liked it). I was fascinated by Do no Harm, the memoir by a neurosurgeon, though I'd not read it again.

 March 2016 - only one book??
 Struggling to know what happened here. The only thing on my list is Lean In which is an exceedingly readable long essay, really, on what you might call "corporate feminism" - it gave me vague echoes of how past-Helen might have bought into all this stuff, before past-Helen went off and had babies and changed her views somewhat. Ah! Realised this was also the month I read The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 which I couldn't find on Goodreads but actually did manage to blog about here.

 April 2016 - 6 books
  All becomes clear! There were some short reads in here, including several of the Little House on the Prairie series, and gosh, a small book of poems, Newborn by Kate Clanchy which I guzzled down in one sitting, sobbing, and then again the next day, sobbing again. It's just exquisite, start to finish. But - the big point is that I finished Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety: what a read, it took me so long, and pretty much stopped me reading anything else in March. I still don't know what to say about it - I remember it as a slog, and worth it, but still disappointing to me because it wasn't Wolf Hall, and in fact for me has been the least engaging of her books. I'm glad I read it, but it was a big time-spend.  

May 2016 - 2 books
Again this is a mystery to me. I was thrilled to discover Elizabeth Taylor - it was Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont that I happened to pick up, because it happened to be in the kindle sale, but I'm looking out for more. It was small in scope, and subtle in action, and entirely delicious. I enjoyed Our Endless Numbered Days too, though one part of the plot irritated me, and was slightly taken aback to see the author had read (and liked) my Goodreads review.  

June 2016 - what happened?
Goodreads says I didn't read anything. I think this was partly my new job, and partly a logging failure. Looks like I caught up the next month.  

July 2016 - 9 books
I read the rest of the Little House series, some in June, I think, and some more gorgeous perfect Sarah Moss, this time Signs for Lost Children. I was properly intrigued by Kirsty Logan's The Gracekeeper though seemingly not enough to give it five stars.  

August 2016 - 2 books

Again I dimly recall something was slowing me down here, because the two I read were both quite enjoyable - The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Sweet Home but both properly slight, in the way modern fiction is. It's becoming a noticeable pattern for me that if I'm reading something on my kindle that I'm not enjoying, it stops me reading at all, because I feel I'm not "allowed" to start anything else. This puts me in a cross mood and generally flattens everything for me, and I'm still not sensible enough to notice when it's happening and get a grip (by, for instance, closing the book).  

September 2016 - half-hearted Bookering

 I read Eileen and His Bloody Project which were both sort of fine, but uninspiring, and I've forgotten most of already. Then I got significantly stuck in the next one.

 October 2016 - NOTHING  

November 2016 - 6 books
 In a perfect illustration of my observation above, I got completely jammed in The Sellout. For about the first quarter I thought I was beholding genius. Really, I was spellbound, but reader, the spell wore off. This let me get myself in such a state that I abandoned the Booker shortlist project only half way through. Highlights after this, though, were the lovely Hollie McNish poetry and prose collection Nobody told me and then Olive Kitteridge which was just burstingly sad in an autumnal sort of way, like the Elizabeth Taylor it is just exquisitely drawn on a small canvas, and has put Elizabeth Strout very high on my list to read more of as soon as I can.

 December 2016 - a rush to the end with 7 books, and the month not even over yet
Some dross in here, but I think All the Light We Cannot See will stick with me for a long time. I was a bit let down by dear Sarah Moss with Cold Earth, which didn't quite live up to my hopes, but then, it was her first novel, and the mood it created was powerful, and besides I love her and will hear nothing bad said of her. Also at my great age I have finally read The Dark is Rising and it was just as excellent as I'd been led to believe it would be.

 What's next?
So much to read in 2017. I've a stack of more and less accessible books on feminism which are calling out loudly to me, and some things lined up on the Kindle, and am hoping to pick up a big batch of 99p bargains, though the sale so far this Christmas has been rubbish. I do love my modern fiction, and this will help if I up my target from 2016's 48 books (which I just about managed) to a neat 52. But I don't want to resist the longer reads, and rereading A Christmas Carol the other day, as I do every year, has made me want to go back to Dickens. So we'll see. I need to be bolder about stopping books if I'm just not enjoying them, and I need to keep focussed on picking up my kindle rather than wasting my brain browsing the internet on my phone. But mainly I just want to keep reading, and keep noting what I've read, and keep talking about books to anyone who will listen. It's been a long post, and I can't promise I won't do another one about everything else in 2016. Somehow the books bit is the easiest to pin down.

Tuesday 29 March 2016

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 - a storming follow up

I've been hopeless recently about writing about books on here, because I was feeling too much pressure to write lots, so things were backing up. So instead I'm religiously logging each one on Goodreads (actually am a tiny bit behind there too) but wanted chance for a longer rave about this one. You know I'm involved with Mother's Milk Books, insofar as I help out behind the scenes a little when I can, and Teika is a dear friend, but it doesn't change what I think about the books (and I'd certainly not rave about something I didn't find rave-worthy)

The second volume of "The Forgotten and The Fantastical", published earlier this month, opens with a gloriously strong first three stories.

Rebecca Ann Smith's Rumpelstiltskin is such a creative take on the story, with an inspiring writing of the process of drawing a creative output from deep inside the self, at a horrible cost. The way she deals with the promising of the firstborn to Rumpelstiltskin, and its aftermath, has made me cry on each of several rereads. Then the wonderful Hansel's Trouble from Lindsey Watkins - I loved her story in last year's anthology, but loved this one even more. It puts the children's story into a real context, and speaks of the truth for those who suffer young: there is nothing as simple as an escape to ever-after happiness.
Last in these first three is Ana Salote's Grimm Reality, a more whimsical story but no less absorbing for that. Again, I'm a raving fan of Ana's writing, and this shows again her ability to capture magic even in the unpromising setting of Elephant and Castle.

I wanted to talk about these first three pieces in particular because they're such a strong start, and this matters to me in an anthology. I think Teika applied real editorial skill in how she has ordered the pieces, so there's a balance, and some shifting of mood. It also gave the chance for a gap before the other Rumpelstiltskin story, which I also found entrancing. Perhaps I'm biassed towards stories that capture the feeling between a mother and her baby; perhaps I like to tease myself with trauma. But this second Rumpelstiltskin, called Trash into cash (Becky Tipper) was modern, original, and deeply felt.
The other piece I want to mention by name was Nathan Ramsden's Icarus. I'd looked forward to it because his two stories in the last anthology were so original, and elegantly written. This one was, too - to my mind he's one of those writers who will have people saying one day "I knew him when he was starting out". There's just something about the confidence of tone, and the complete mastery of the whole story, that makes a reader feel in safe hands, willing to go wherever they are taken. 

Those were my top five, as it were, but there were thirteen other pieces too, all very readable, and with many other high points. As with any anthology, a few appealed to me less, and one or two were less skilled in execution, but much of this is personal taste. It's a meatier book than last year's, and an even higher standard in general. It's also given me some writing ideas: there were a few pieces in there I wished I'd written.

And, as ever, a beautiful book to look at and hold - Emma Howitt's pictures at the start of each story add atmosphere perfectly, without shouting for attention, but repaying it when they get it. I'm looking forward to filling my shelf with a row of these from year after year...

Mother's Milk Books

Sunday 6 March 2016

Feminism, the workplace, and failed audacity

There's a lot in the news at the moment about women's equality, workplace rights, and so on. The dominant push seems to be for quotas and strictly defined equality, so either parent can take parental leave, meaning neither sex is disadvantaged by time away from the workplace, and all of this kind of thing.
I've been reading this thinking well, they're missing the point. "They" are moving counters around a board, allocating open and closed boxes, and not understanding the early days of mother-baby bonding; perhaps more importantly, though, they are seeking freedom within SUCH a tight and unimaginative set of assumptions.
Yes, if we really honestly believe that the best work is always done in offices between exactly 9 and 5 on a Monday to Friday and that permanent employment contracts are always needed and that every job change should be career-enhancing and give a pay rise and that every business's person-hour needs are an exact multiple of 37.5, then the answer to the problem might be just to treat all employees as sexless, to let each individual take leave on the arrival of a new baby, to put in regulations about discrimination and equal pay and generally to ensure that We Are All Treated Exactly The Same which is to put it another way that We Are All Treated Exactly As Men In The Workplace Always Have Been.

Here, I don't want to explore the issues of why being a mother might not be like being a father, and nor do I want to empty out my heart on my own urgent connection to my sons that makes the full time model impossible for me.

Instead, I want to observe the structural problem. I want to howl, why aren't you looking at other options? Employers, or those who need stuff doing for them and are willing to pay for it, why are you so fearful of stepping away from that path? Instead of recruiting the right number of people for your average busy-ness, so that they're bored for part of the year and stressed beyond measure for another part, why not have a core of full-timers (and many want it. I'm not denying that) and supplement with freelancers, part timers, short term contracts? Why would you choose to limit your options, or do you truly believe that everyone available for full time work has inherently more talents than anyone offering something else?

This, to my mind, is as big a problem for women as whether maternity and paternity leave are well shared. While "we" are stuck in a mindset where there is A Single True Path, and where everyone needs to be physically present at the 10am team meeting on a Tuesday, because This Is What We Do, then we're not letting ourselves access any value from those who, for whatever reason, can't or won't offer that. Women do have babies - we really can't get past that - and while of course lots of these women do, by choice or necessity, get themselves straight back into full time paid work out of the home, we don't all want or feel able to do that. Years of training, and thousands of pounds of investment in human capital, are set aside because so many women experience a sudden shift to offering something a different shape from the crude hole that so many businesses are holding open.

There are gleams of hope, and small setups trying to bring together those wanting flexible work with those offering it, but many of these opportunities are laughable - "part time" roles asking for "only" 34 hours per week, or those described in the top line as "home based" but disclosing in the body of the ad that "occasional home working may be negotiated after a probationary period". It doesn't cut it, though. A good flexible freelancer is an amazing asset to have in your contact book - she might not be visible at a desk, and she might do things at peculiar times of day, but she also might have a pile of skills that you'd pay a fortune for in a full time employee (and not need most of the time), and she might turn things round overnight or at weekends, and she might even reward you with immense loyalty because you've taken a risk.

We do need a societal change in this respect - a move from "how do we enable women to get back to work as soon as possible?" to "how do we match work requirements with those who are best able to meet those requirements, surrendering, as we do so, our artificial and mainly imaginary constraints?".

What about the failed audacity? A personal end to this rant. I thought I could do something audacious. I could show how this can work, holding down a part time job and freelance work, being always with my babies while keeping a sharp brain, meeting other conventional employees as equals, being just as relevant and useful as anyone at a desk all week. And I was doing it, I really was, but I fear now that it's turning out to be in the same sense as an amateur juggler is "doing it" in between the point where he chucks twelve balls in the air and the point when they all tumble down onto his head. It seems I couldn't, quite, and I don't know where things go from here. I can do my best to "be the change I wish to see in the world", but gosh, out on the plains it's cold and draughty.

Note: yes, men. I'm writing about women, and the she-freelancer, because it's what I am. But men too! I believe my point about how unncecessarily limiting these self-imposed limits about timing and location of work really are applies to everyone. It's just that women, particularly in the childbearing years (and I do not love that phrase), might be bringing more of their own limits with them too.

Another note: yes, modern times, first world problem. I'm aware I could be out hoeing fields 14 hours a day, and taking in mending at night, and still ending up in the workhouse. But it matters because in the world I used to fit into, a professional world, there is a constant stream of discussion asking where all the senior women are, why women don't "succeed" (fsvo success) and so on

A final note: I have a million posts stored up, on a million topics. Hang on in there if you prefer it when I write about books or making stuff or my entirely wonderful children.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Oy Yew, and what makes good children's fiction brilliant

I've been wanting to write about Ana Salote's Oy Yew for a long time, since I first saw it, and wanting to say something more interesting than "it's wonderful", particularly because so many of my book posts at the moment seem to be raving about the great books, and it could sound as though I read uncritically. (I don't. I just have something of a squeeze on my time at the moment, and while I do seem to find a good amount of time to read, only books that have made a great impression have even a fighting chance of getting blogged about at the moment. Actually I have a post brewing about the male gaze, and the insidious way it penetrates so much fiction, but that's not for here and now).

So. I'm not one of those adults who enjoys being infantile, saying that Horrid Histories are just their level and they would happily always choose children's books over adults'. A properly written, challenging, adult read is supreme: I'd choose Hilary Mantel, or Marilynne Robinson, or Dickens, or several others over almost anyone else. But there's a corner of my heart fenced off for a certain type of children's fiction.

Children's fiction that works doesn't fob us off with overly simple language or improbable happenings. It doesn't show us characters who are reductively single-faceted and expect us to identify goodies and baddies on page one. What it does is set up a world that has fewer boundaries, where imagination is allowed to go wilder than most adult-oriented authors permit themselves, and where the characters have weaknesses and nuances and are often battling a strange and confusing universe. Of course this is one of the features that lets children identify with good books written for them: so much of our world is geared at adults, and uses strange language and difficult ideas and refuses to explain things properly to them.

The characteristic that really leaped out for me, though, when I was trying to analyse this, was that (good) authors writing for children aren't afraid to tell us what their characters are thinking and feeling. We don't have to be stuck in the first person for this, but we're not given the cold detached third person that adult fiction often uses, where the main characters' motivations are opaque, and we're meant to be able to deduce them with some kind of behaviourist approach.

In His Dark Materials, perhaps the best trilogy I've ever read, we know what Lyra thinks because Pullman lets us into her head - we can also see from other factors what the limits of her understanding are, and we see more than her, so we understand more, but it's not patronising to her or to the reader, it's just acknowledging the childish viewpoint at the same time as the spectator's position. With Pantalaimon we know less, he's an animal and we read him by what he does, though of course in "that scene" on the banks of the river, anyone who's not sobbing and scrabbling with him must be made of iron. And then Will, oh, Will, and his desperate protection of his mother, and his internal battles, and his need to continue holding it together, to banish hard thoughts from his mind, well, I can't think of a better description of someone learning to master themselves. I won't even write about Hester and Lee Scoresby, because I'm tired and fragile and it might break me.

Diana Wynne Jones is the other children's author who springs to mind - her universes are wildly inventive, but mainly her people are real, real, real. The sibling rivalry in Charmed Life is very believable, and again she has no fear of letting us see inside characters' heads, even when they're not being entirely sympathetic.

This might not seem relevant to Oy Yew, but it is. It's nominally a children's book, but I've rarely seen such a complex and endearing character as Oy. He jumps out straight away and although we learn more about him through the book, it all chimes perfectly - I felt the way you do when you meet someone you can tell you'll be friends with, and whenever you find out something more about them you think well, yes, of course, in some sense I knew that already. He's got special senses and unusual skills, but mainly it's his sensibility, his sensitivity, his fragility that's a strength. It's not surprising that he grows in confidence and bravery as the book goes on, because it's how he obviously would develop, and all of his encounters make sense. The other waifs all play second fiddle to him, but that's as it should be; that's not to say they're not well-drawn, because they are, but they're in the background in this telling, even though he's the insubstantial one, or as the first line says, "slight, weakly, overlooked".
There's a whole world here, not with magic but just with different senses, and different laws, and different social expectations, and natural forces that may have a will - like our world but with a strange, fairy-like take on it. This is the sort of inventiveness I admire so very very much - keeping to the basic physical laws of the world as we know it but bending and distorting everything, inventing new hobbies (competitive bone-collecting!) and a new set of race relations. It's carried lightly - there's no sense of "look at all this cool stuff I've made up" - with just the right amount of scene-setting. This may partly be a consequence of the pitch to children - an author writing for adults might feel the need to add more ballast, more Serious Explanation and Detailed Exposition, but honestly, the courage to let the characters and the world speak for themselves, and the plot to move on at its own speed, not held back by good manners or literary pretension - well, I could think of many who could take a lesson from this.
It's funny, too - I love the rhyming cook, and the strange afflictions, and the grotesque character of Jeopardine.
And thrilling! The end took my breath away when I first read it, and I had that proper sensation of mourning, and of desperation to know what happened next (it's the start of a trilogy).

Truly, I'd recommend this just as a novel to read, with absolutely no sense of shame in buying it as an adult. The things that make it a children's book are all the things that are most admirable about the best children's books, and all that means is that if you have the right kind of age children they'll love it too. But I'll be rushing out to buy parts two and three in just the same way as I'd hurtle to the shops if Pullman added number 4 onto his trilogy - it's in that kind of league for me.

(you can buy it from Mother's Milk Books - and also can read the first chapter online - and yes, I am associated with them, but not financially, and I bought my own copy, and am also entirely incapable of raving about books I don't love - you can check that by seeing what I said about Breast Intentions even though I'd had a review copy...)

Tuesday 26 May 2015

The forgotten and the fantastical

There's all sorts I need to write about at the moment, and a million books I've loved and want to rave about, so much I've been overwhelmed and paralysed into not-starting. Plus, and I know this sounds like an excuse, but don't even dare to dismiss it as one unless you too have more than one pre-school-age child and an evening job, I really am finding time hard to manage. It's not just about deciding to work harder or stretch myself thinner: there really are only a few hours in the day when I can be at a computer, hard in the day with the children, then in the evenings I absolutely must earn a living, and when I've done the money-bit and turned to my own projects the boys get into the phase of evening when they just take it in turns to wake, and won't settle without me. I'm trying to think of innovative ways to eke out more time, and drawing a blank. Setting the alarm "an hour earlier" as is so commonly recommended doesn't work amazingly well if your children's start time varies so massively - today we've all been awake since 5.30 and I'm not sure I'm committed enough to my art that I'd have been able to leap up at 4.30. Plus, I feel fairly sure that my getting up early would just wake them, and it's hard enough as it is, getting to that time of morning when you've done all the activities and good mothering and stuff, and it's still only 9am....

I loved The Forgotten and the Fantastical because it did that thing to me that some books do - it made me want to join in. It made me think about fairy tales, and which ones I'd like to tell again in my own way, and what messages they're giving us. I blogged a little about it a while back, about the hidden values and their dangers, but that didn't really say much about the book.
There are 11 stories, varying from fairly straight re-tellings through creative re-imaginings and brand new stories. It's hard to pick out which ones were particularly special, but I did think the opening and closing pieces, from N J Ramsden,. were properly disturbing, in a good way. The boy and the bird was just magical and lyrical and troubling and I had to read it twice before I could carry on.
Then there was the glorious Red Riding Hood retelling, Footfalls of the hunter, visceral and urgent and a proper making the story her own. Gepetto's child has a Blade runner kind of feel, but it's more original than that makes it sound. And I was deeply impressed by the versatility of the two Marija Smits stories - assuming a range of narrative voices is something I'd love to be able to do with any kind of skill, and she does just this, with Screaming Sue having a Holden Caulfield sort of tone.
I'm not trying to belittle these stories at all by comparing and referencing to other things, in fact quite the opposite. Really worthwhile reading for me gains its value through creating resonances, echoes of what I've read or seen or thought about before and noises that keep chiming through my head making me want to try my own reflections. So when writing puts me in mind of something else, then something else again, it's properly paying for itself, giving me lots of fuel for my money.

And on what might seem like a slightly shallow note, it's a physically beautiful book - a lovely size to hold, and eyecatching cover, and quirky little pictures at the start of each story. It doesn't matter as much as the words inside, but it helps to make it feel special, and this matters to me when more and more of the books I buy these days are for my kindle - I like a book that I can enjoy physically as well as intellectually and emotionally, if that doesn't sound too pompous. It's a feature of everything that Mother's Milk Books sells - a physical loveliness that pulls you in before you even begin reading.

Not such a blog silence until next time, I swear. I want to write about the stresses and strains of work, about trying to balance the callings to do so many things, the rough rough challenges of a sensitive yet boisterous four year old displaced by his brother, the glorious smell and feel of a plump baby, the fun and games of learning to use a sewing machine, oh, all sorts, there's so much in there waiting for a chance to tumble out....maybe some speech recognition software and a bit of benign neglect are called for.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Why Doulas Matter

It's taken me a while to get round to writing this: often I write about books from my memory of them, relying on my impressions, which is quicker. I have huge time and respect for proper book bloggers who have lots of quotes and obvious results of careful notes, but it's not how I usually approach things. This one, though, I wanted to pin down why I loved it so much, because it's the kind of book that could seem slight and unnecessary, and wouldn't be well served by a write-up that just says it's amazing.

But, it's amazing.

Maddie McMahon is a practising doula, and has written this beautiful pocket-sized book to explain what a doula does, perhaps mainly for mothers considering using one, but also for anyone who thinks they might want to be one (and, maybe, for health professionals, to understand who the strange lady in the corner is). It's so far, though, from being a checklist or a textbook.

Really, it's suffused with love, her love for her clients, the presence of oxytocin and incredibly strong emotions in the birthing room, the sense of the relationship between a mother and her new baby. With such a strong current like this running through it, maybe the actual words would hardly matter, but they're lyrical and powerful, elegantly written, with a lightness of touch but at the same time a perfect understanding of the grave solemnity of the act of birthing.

I loved the assurance to mothers about what a thrill doulas get from being with them, and how they truly want to be woken in the night to come to a birth; I loved the descriptions from Maddie and others she quoted of relationships between doulas and their clients, showing just how deep a bond can come about from sharing this most intimate of times.

In fact, the only false note in the whole book, for me, was a quote early on from Suzanne Howlett, which read to me as suggesting that women suffering from infertility might just be able to fix it if they tried hard enough. The quote doesn't say that, it says that releasing stress might cause alignment with conception, but I still don't like it, with its implication that anyone who doesn't relax themselves into conceiving is just doing something wrong.

Such a tiny niggle, though. I'm not doing this justice, here. I can't explain the excitement that I felt reading it, the way it fanned my flames, made me desperately want to be a part of this, thinking a series of wild thoughts, I could be a doula! Or a midwife! Or have another baby! Just, really, anything to get to stay involved with this wonderful thing, and no, I'm not denying that so so many people have not had wonderful experiences of birth, but I have, and when it goes well it is the most extraordinary, life-changing, self-defining experience you could imagine. I thought this description was perfect: "Watching the bag of waters balloon in the water before the head is born is like watching a mother lay a beautiful, mother-of-pearl egg" - what a way to show the mysticism and complete everydayness, in combination, of this happening.

In the areas that I properly know about - breastfeeding - it's spot-on, accurate, supportive, again *loving* and tender and gentle and yet unflinching.

And oh, the aspect about stories, about a doula's role as a story-keeper, and the important of listening. This rang so true, both from my experiences as a mother sharing with others, and from being a breastfeeding counsellor. So often I talk to a mother of a newborn, and I ask about the birth so I can get a sense of the context of her call, and it all comes pouring out, she obviously has such a need to tell the story, and I'm honoured to hear it, and they stay with me, they all do, and I feel it again with her, and it shows me so much about her, and lets me see another angle to what's going on with her now, and I LOVE IT, and am I using "love" enough yet? I love the book, and I love the love in the book, and I love the way that both this and the next book I'll write about (H is for Hawk - watch this space) have a kind of love in them that's not a romantic partner-love, it's a deeply felt something else, but love's still the only word for it.

Now, seriously, where do I sign up?

Tuesday 31 March 2015

Changing the fairy tales

Welcome to ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ Carnival This post was written especially for inclusion in ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of their latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience: The Forgotten and the Fantastical. Today our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘Fairy tales’. Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants. ***

If you'd asked me a couple of years back, I'd have told you vaguely that I liked fairy tales. I liked the idea of them, and had fond memories of stories with my grandmother, and of one particular book of illustrated Grimm tales (I think) with the most perfect, detailed pictures you could imagine. I can still bring to mind the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, such detail on the cakes and sweets and biscuits, oh, and the frog sitting by the princess's golden plate and asking, horror of horrors, to drink from her golden cup - in the picture there was drool dripping from his mouth, and horror on her princessy face. I remember a boy covered in treacle and feathers, too, though I've no idea what the story might have been.

It's only getting back to them now (and sadly, not in such a beautiful edition) with a nearly-four-year-old that I realise how crude the basic premise is in so many of the classic fairy stories.

Princess and the pea - prince waits in his castle, auditioning princesses, hoping to find one of unprecedented fragility and girliness
Princess and the frog - man frog buys you dinner gets your ball out of a pond so you're morally obliged to bonk him let him sleep on your golden pillow - but it's ok because he turns out to be a prince so you grit your teeth
Rumpelstiltskin - dad sells his daughter to a king, who locks her up, sets her impossible tasks, and says if she's really really good then eventually he might marry her. (No wonder she promises she'll give his baby away to a funny little stranger)

I could go on, but it's been done before, and with greater skill. It's easy to defend them as just stories, as being simple fun and as also having other more uplifting messages (the princess made a promise to the frog, and you must always keep promises; Rumpelstiltskin was foolish enough to offer a loophole, and you must always take advantage of loopholes). But I really do fear the way we've internalised these messages. Most right-thinking modern people wouldn't agree to the idea that women should wait to be chosen by a man, but we can't stay away from this narrative, the one where the ultimate reward is marriage, obviously to a prince. Sleeping Beauty has her fate set from the beginning, and her redemption is through the kiss of a stranger who she ends up shackled to - she is the powerless woman, her whole life's structure fixed, only freed by a man who effectively gives her the freedom that should have been hers.
I'm struggling to put any of this in an original way, but it's an honest reflection of my unease with fairy tales, and my difficulty with sharing them with my boy. He questions so much but this is also the time when all his values are being shaped, when he is so receptive to everything that comes into his world. I'd not show him violence on the television, or swear in front of him; I try to model gentle and respective interactions with people and ways of talking about them. And yet here the only goal, if you're a woman, is to find someone who will marry you and keep you in style, and if you're a man you only want the princesses, the beautiful, unachievable, hyper-feminine ones, who come with a dowry.
I don't know, in real life, mothers of girls who tell them they need to find a prince. But if we don't argue with the stories, point out the problems and the stupid assumptions and the ridiculous value systems embedded in them, we're not doing right by our children. We tell them not to worry, ogres aren't real, trolls aren't real, witches aren't real; we should add that princes who make it all ok aren't real, women who are worthwhile just because they're pretty aren't real, and there are better ways to start a relationship than being rescued from a dragon.

*** The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2015 book cover
The Forgotten and the Fantastical is now available to buy from The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) and as a paperback from Amazon.
It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.
Any comments on the following fab posts would be much appreciated:
In ‘Imagination is quantum ergo fairies are real’, Ana, at Colouring Outside the Lines, explains why we should all believe in fairies and encourage our children to do the same.

 ‘Wings’ — Rebecca at Growing a Girl Against the Grain shares a poem about her daughter and explains the fairy tale-esque way in which her name was chosen.

 In ‘Red Riding Hood Reimagined’ author Rebecca Ann Smith shares her poem ‘Grandma’.

Writer Clare Cooper explores the messages the hit movie Frozen offers to our daughters about women’s experiences of love and power in her Beautiful Beginnings blog post ‘Frozen: Princesses, power and exploring the sacred feminine.’

 ‘Changing Fairy Tales’ — Helen at Young Middle Age explains how having young children has given her a new caution about fairy tales.

In ‘The Art of Faerie’ Marija Smits waxes lyrical about fairy tale illustrations.

 ‘The Origins of The Forgotten and the Fantastical — Teika Bellamy shares her introduction from the latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience published by Mother’s Milk Books.