Saturday, February 6, 2010

8. Snow and 9. The Storyteller's Daughter

Snow, by Tracy Lynn, and The Storyteller's Daughter, by Cameron Dokey, are both part of the "Once upon a time is timeless" series published by Simon & Schuster. There are a good half-dozen books by different authors in the series, all of them re-imaginings of classic fairy tales. They're relatively short, light&easy reads - exactly what I needed for a break after The Time Traveler's Wife and it's heart-wrenching ending - and like any good modern fairy tale, they promised and delivered with "happily ever after."

Snow is a reworking of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," but it isn't a slavish retelling of the story. The plot-line is familiar, of course, but the characters are entirely new and charming in a different way than the originals - I particularly enjoyed the "dwarfs," but the Duchess Jessica - or Snow, as she comes to be called when her confinement indoors makes her skin turn pale - is an entirely captivating heroine.

Since the story is set in a relatively more modern London, there's a chance for Snow to learn about class differences that her archetype missed, being stranded in a cottage in the middle of the forest as she was. There's a fairly nuanced view of morality, not quite the black-and-white that fairy tales usually offer - Snow's friends have no real option other than stealing to survive, and she acknowledges that and her discomfort with it. There aren't any real answers, beyond the fact that it's wrong for the wealthy to abuse the poor that they do.

The story has a more modern take on the apple than the original, too, in that it's "science" that the wicked stepmother uses to trap Snow in an enchanted sleep, rather than sorcery. The remedy isn't the traditional kiss, either, but the happily ever after is well-earned in the end.

In The Storyteller's Daughter, we have the tale of Shahrazad, a retelling of The Arabian Nights with a bit of a twist. This is in fact the story of Shahrazad herself, not just the stories that she tells to the king to save her life. We learn about her mother, Maju, who was a storyteller herself, and her father, the king's vizier, before learning about her marriage and developing relationship with the king.

The king, Shahrayar, is a more developed character here than in the original story, and we get a chance to understand the reason why he's ready to go around marrying women and killing them all the next morning. It's not the greatest reason in the whole world, but it's hard to think of a really good reason to do such a thing, isn't it?

The backdrop to this story is charming - all of the details that make its setting are very vivid, and the language of the fairytale is well suited to this setting. It's a bit heavy on riddles and mysticism, but not unbearably so. The few stories that we hear Shahrazad telling are not as riveting as her own story, but that's as it should be, really. The only place where the story falls short, I think, is that the relationship between Shahrazad and Shahrayar isn't as believable as it could be - they seem to have fallen in love rather quickly, and even in a fairy tale, I'd like to see a bit more of a believable relationship than this.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

7. The Time Traveler's Wife

There was a boy I knew in college - I was rather fond of him, and he was very clever, as many of the boys I knew in college were. He was a writer, and he was working on a novel that was going to expound many philosophical tenets. I don't remember if I was ever allowed to read any of it, but I do know that he had planned to have his characters have long, philosophical conversations with each other. I thought it sounded dead boring, as novels go - I love to learn new things, but I don't read them to be lectured, after all.

The Time Traveler's Wife, a novel by Audrey Niffenegger, is exactly the sort of book that my college friend would have liked to write, I think. Oh, there are none of the long conversations about philosophy (I like to think that my friend has learned that those are a bad idea, at least when it comes to keeping the reader's interest), but this novel has philosophical debates in spades.

What are you doing? What are you destined to do? If you could slip outside of your own time, could you change the future? Do we have free will? Do we have a choice in who we love?

What I liked best about this book is that there aren't necessarily cut-and-dried moral answers to every question, and the philosophical questions are put to the reader in an engaging, relevant way. On the surface, the novel is about the story of Henry, who has Chrono Displacement Disorder, and his wife, Clare, who has to endure his frequent and unexplained absences. They first meet when she is six and he is forty, but from his viewpoint, they meet for the first time when they're both in their twenties. Clare has known him for her entire life, but she's a stranger to him.

Their romance is one of the best that I've read in a long, long time. Niffenegger handles the confused time-lines very well, and her characterization and prose are beautiful, enough to make me fall in love with this book. That said, I do have a few minor quibbles with the book: some of the minor characters could have had more time, a few of the storylines weren't wrapped up neatly at the end of the book (I think that this was probably intentional on Niffenegger's part, but I would have liked to know what happened to these characters), and her science, while far more accurate than that of many writers, is a little facile. Also, I object to the fact that this is not a book that one can read in public - I had to keep it for reading at home after I missed my stop on the subway because I was so engrossed in reading. Definitely not what one expects out of a philosophy text, but this book will keep me thinking about deep questions for a long time to come.