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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

17 Jan

Full disclosure, folks. You know how I’ve been upfront with you all about my love of Woolf? Well, my love of her is only really rivaled by my love of Angela Carter. British feminist writers know the keys to my heart, and truthfully Carter is one of the writers I discuss heavily in my thesis project. I just love her, and have found that she has been largely forgotten as time has worn on (she died in 1992). This is only a smidgen short of a tragedy, in my mind. Forget Twilight or any of those other fantastical, paranormal books being written nowadays–read some Carter and I promise you won’t regret it.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Published: 1979

Quick Read?: Carter’s language is very rich and detailed, but the stories themselves are engrossing. It’s a fairly quick read.

Difficulty: Again, Carter loves to use elaborate language. Some may find it intimidating, but her writing flows so well that it hardly feels difficult to read most of the time.

Synopsis: The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories, or rather, “revisions” of classic fairy tales. Carter revisits, revises, or perhaps rewrites well known Western fairy tales and myths, making them more violent, more risqué, and if nothing else, more three-dimensional. Carter’s feminist twists feel refreshing and modern, even if her audience has heard these tales ad nauseum throughout their lives. The infamous title story “The Bloody Chamber” tells the familiar story of “Bluebeard” from the young wife’s perspective, giving voice to her thoughts and agency to her (and her mother, interestingly) as she faces certain death. “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “Tiger’s Bride” both tell the tale of “Beauty and the Beast” but from vastly different points of view: one that the romance is one of mutual respect and reconciliation with the beast within all humans, the other implying that all men are beasts, and all women are prone to be ravaged. All of her stories take on the troublesome power dynamics of women in classic fairy tales and myths, but go deeper than just giving them agency–they examine these women’s thoughts, their possible actions, and the possibility that perhaps all humans are far more animalistic then we might like to think.

What makes this book great?: This is hard for me to answer since I’m planning to write some 80-odd pages on the subject, but the easiest way to put it is that Carter does a wonderful job of creating a feminist work that is more than just political rhetoric. It examines women in society and how their position, if these old fairy tales are to be believed, is so fixed, yet these characters are also human and humans descends from animals. Society dictates these rules to make it seem as though we are above animals, when really, all of her characters are trying to tame their animalistic instincts constantly, usually to no avail. So it’s a book concerning gender, but not exclusively, and that is something I feel should be greatly admired.

On a more fun note, there is something very satisfying in reading fairy tales from childhood in a more adult way. The violent and sexual aspects are more prominent in Carter’s retelling, and more disturbing. It’s a great deal more fun, but also unsettling. It makes you re-examine how these tales shaped your youth and the way you once viewed the world. Yet, the touch of magic and surreal throughout still makes The Bloody Chamber a great place to escape to, albeit temporarily.

A few points of interest:

Read The Bloody Chamber then try and tell me you DON'T want to frolic through the woods with Angela Carter. Just try and tell me you don't. You'll want to frolic with her. Trust me on this.

  • Carter was also a translator. She translated Charles Perrault’s fairy tales (he was the original Mother Goose–yes, Mother Goose was originally a guy), and this in turn inspired her to write The Bloody Chamber.
  • She also wrote stories based on historical events that included women–a great one is “The Fall River Axe Murders” where Carter steps inside the mind of the famous murderer Lizzie Borden, creating a sympathetic portrait of a squandered woman.
  • Carter also wrote her own screenplay for the short story “Company of Wolves” from The Bloody Chamber. Not something a lot of authors get to do. Check out the trailer, pretty creepy, right? However, it received mixed reviews upon release: 

If you enjoy this, try: Burning Your Boats: The Collected Stories by Angela Carter; A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor; Transformations by Anne Sexton; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell; Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Beloved by Toni Morrison

27 Jul

OK, so per usual, I’m both behind the times and breaking my own rules. But Toni Morrison is, quite frankly, worth breaking the rules for. You may have heard her name in the news this spring when Snooki was paid more money to speak at Rutgers University than her (Morrison was the graduation speaker. Can you imagine Snooki trying to give advice to anyone?). People were outraged, and rightly so, given that her works are incredibly well-written, powerful, and unforgettable, and none more so than Beloved. Yes, it’s a little more recent than most books I profile, but still. I profile it with good reason.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Published: 1987

Quick Read?: The action is rather slow, and rather creepy. It’s worth slowing down just a little bit to catch all of the beautiful use of language, and all of the subtlety.

Difficulty: Not very, though it does test what you can and cannot believe.

Synopsis: Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a woman who fled slavery, and her family in her haunted home in Ohio several years after the war. When she is visited by Paul D, also a former slave at the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky where they both worked, he tries to help them move on and more forward with their lives. As they all begin to move on, the “ghost” of Sethe’s daughter, Beloved, comes to stay in their house. Sethe’s living daughter Denver realizes the long dead baby has come back, yet Sethe finds herself entranced by this mysterious, terrifying stranger’s presence. As Beloved seduces her way into their household (literally and figuratively), she begins to demand more and more of Sethe, and finally revealing the dark, dark secret in Sethe’s past when she fled her master long ago. It is only with the help of the community around Sethe can be saved, and in turn be redeemed.

What makes this book awesome? If you love historical fiction, or history, or ghost stories, this one is for you. It’s literary, but very much grounded in real stories of slaves escaping their masters, and the hell that could come upon them if they were caught (The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that owners could track down their slaves in free states and bring them back, often torturing or killing them in the process). The plot also reflects the struggles that freed slaves after the Civil War faced while trying to move forward–how does one forget the past, and should one ought to? How does one move forward when so many you have known have not? These themes are timeless, especially considering the enormous racial struggles we still face in this country today.

Also, while most postmodern literature can be alienating and unsettling by nature, Morrison does a wonderful job of both bringing the reader into the folklore, history, and mindset of the characters’ world, but also keeping enough distance to build suspense and horror. This combination is both heartwrenching and compelling, and makes Beloved hard to put down.

The ever wonderful and groundbreaking Toni Morrison. If you can't tell, I do worship this woman.

Some neat-o facts:

  • Beloved is based off the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave woman who killed her children rather than have them be recaptured by their master. She had no regrets, saying they were better off dead than enslaved. Morrison later wrote an operetta based off of Garner’s life.
  • Morrison was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • The book is dedicated to the estimated 60 million slaves killed in the African slave trade, though many estimates have placed the number as being much higher.
  • “Toni Morrison” is her pen name: her real name is Chloe Anthony Wofford, but she used the nickname “Toni” in college since people pronounced her name wrong.
If you like this, try: The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, or Sula by Morrison; The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner; Billy Budd by Herman Melville; Black Feminist criticism by bell hooks (no capitals–she prefers her name spelled that way).

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

29 Jun

I read this one recently, and it’s such a unique and underread classic…This is one that will stay with you.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Published: 1980

Genre: fiction (literary fiction)

Difficulty: This one is deceptive. Though the plot is straightforward, there is a lot in it, so I would say somewhat difficult.

Quick Read?: As I mentioned earlier, this book is deceptive. Read it slowly, don’t rush.

Synopsis: The novel begins with a train that runs through the town of Fingerbone out west, and when the train goes over the town’s lake, it runs off the track, killing off everyone onboard, never to be found again. We learn the protagonists’ grandfather supposedly was on that very train, never to be seen again (hence the rather eerie looking cover choice).

Housekeeping follows the lives of two young sisters as they grow up in their grandmother’s house in Fingerbone after their mother abandons them there. But when their grandmother eventually passes away, the only family they have left is their Aunt Sylvie, who we later learn lived a nomadic life following trains. As Sylvie’s strange but true colors show, and the house begins to morph with the passing of the generations, we begin to see the disintegration of the family and their shared common space.

What makes this book awesome?: I had only really heard of this book recently, and at first, wasn’t sure if I was into it. Once I did get into it though, I was so glad I had read it–it’s a masterpiece of slow, suspenseful writing that I feel is truly worth it in the end.

It is a book that creeps up on you–even when you think nothing of interest is happening, very small, subtle details become incredibly important. The terror of the train accident haunts the town, the lake, and in it’s own distinct ways, the different characters. It is poetic and masterfully put together.

I also personally loved how the house sort of acts like a character here (The title is certainly not referring to cleaning, that becomes rather apparent). The condition of the house, who is in side of it, how it is used or not used, becomes integral to the story itself, and I personally love when a space becomes important in a book. It’s much like life–our houses, our safe places, our memories–and I really enjoy that.

If you like this, try: The Completed Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor, poetry by Sylvia Plath, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I always figured success felt like sitting in an oversized armchair. Marilynne and I are on the same page.