Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Once Upon a Time – Beginnings

It began with an unreasonable number of books. (Doesn’t it always?) I thought last year’s list would be inspirational, but it hovered in the background, with other titles more insistent, and this year’s OUAT reading has been a flurry of all-over-the-place fragments so far.

I haven’t finished anything yet, but I have been reading since the event launched with the Equinox: Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of poems, The World’s Wife, Bill Willingham’s Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, Charles de Lint’s The Dreaming Place, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (for the readalong), watching “Grimm” (I watched the first 10 episodes for last year’s event) and “Once Upon a Crime”, which is episode 17 in season 4 of “Castle” (my latest televised addiction).

Atwood Robber Bride

McClelland & Stewart, 1993

Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride is a re-read for me. It is one of my just-fine Margaret Atwood reads (Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale being true favourites), but I’ve always wondered if, were I to re-read, I would find the layers and insights that made my favourites of hers so memorable.

Between my first reading of The Robber Bride and this reading, I also read Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom, another of Margaret Atwood’s fairy-tale retellings (“Bluebeard’s Egg”), and the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale, and I figured that I had missed a lot in that earlier reading of Atwood’s novel. And? I did.

Even the prose of The Robber Bride is fairy-tale soaked. I’m certain that I didn’t notice the subtleties in language choice and phrasing on my first reading. The description of a place being “someplace long ago and distant in space”, talk of a “good egg”, a “forest green outfit”, or a “neglected and derelict yard”: these details didn’t register with me back then. I wasn’t attending to words like ‘spidery’, ‘shadows’, ‘cinder’, ‘cavernous’, ‘tangled’ or ‘moat’; I was caught up with the contemporary setting, the streets of Toronto.

I even missed talk of Tony’s Cinderella-like slaving. “In the more recent past she’s made extra cash by waiting on tables and by cleaning washrooms in second-rate hotels — drudgery is the price of virtue — but when she does that she’s too tired to study.” And I overlooked Tony and West (whose name has been magickally transformed from Stew) meandering across parks, crossing at corners “Holding hands like the babes in the woods”. I didn’t notice that Billy prefers to believe that Charis (whose name has also been magickally altered from Karen) is like “a lily of the field; that she neither toils nor spins; that bacon and coffee are simply produced by her, like leaves from a tree”.

(Well, you can see why? It’s so cleverly couched in the language of the everyday — talk of coffee and street corners mixed with talk of moats and ferry crossings, that one might miss the layers in the narrative.)

I’m a little more than halfway into Margaret Atwood’s novel; as it’s been more than twenty years since I first read it, in many years it feels like a fresh read, but I do remember bits of the setting (the lovely island, the flavour of Queen Street West, the University of Toronto campus) and the overarching story of Zenia “with her bared incisors and outstretched talons and banshee hair, demanding what is rightfully hers”. (What’s your favourite Margaret Atwood work?)

In the mornings, I’m reading from Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of poems, The World’s Wife, wherein some women are pulled from history but most are drawn from myths and stories. The first poem, for instance, is of “Little Red Cap”. (For a longer collection, devoted to this character, consider Cornelia Hoogland’s Woods Wolf Girl (2011), which is terrific.) Not only is April Poetry Month, but my Reading Bingo calls for a book of poetry and, hey, I did say it’s got fairy tales and mythic women in there, right?

Worlds Wife Duffy

1999; Picador-Macmillan, 2000

In the evenings, I’m dipping into Bill Willingham’s Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, which is a collection of shorter works, with contributions from a variety of illustrators. At first I was taken aback by the seemingly one-dimensional Arabian sultan (haven’t we seen enough evil sultans?) but then I realized (obvious, I know) that this is playing with the idea of 1001 Arabian Nights tales (so now I’m hoping there is a slant to the conventional evil-sultan-telling to update this tale).

In the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep, I pull Charles de Lint’s The Dreaming Place under the covers with me. This is one of the books that I have recently identified on my bookshelves as a 20Something read, meaning it’s been on my shelves for twenty-someodd years. I still freshly remember my excitement about it’s having been brought back into print (along with the third of the Newford titles), how thrilled I was when my local indie shop called to say that they were there for me to pick up, and, yet, it’s been more than twenty years since I planned to rush home and read it. (I’m not alone in this, right?)

The Dreaming Place is a novel told in two voices, Nina’s and Ash’s, two teenager girls drawn to (and repelled by) magical forces. Girls promised at birth to women on the other side, shape-shifting, mysterious strangers, boundaries between worlds: I absolutely loved the stories in Dreams Underfoot, which I read for last year’s OUAT, and I’m enjoying this too, although I am looking forward to a more complex full-length Newford novel. (Any favourites out there?)

The first Neil Gaiman book that I read was Odd and the Frost Giants, and last autumn I read (er, listened to) The Graveyard Book (but was too late, really, to participate much in the readalong for RIP); since then, I’ve been debating whether to add him to my MRE (Must Read Everything) list of authors. Stardust could make/break the deal. (Any predictions?) More talk of that on Friday.

So far I am reading more for OUAT than I have in past years but, simultaneously, finishing fewer things. For now, at least, it’s all about beginnings (and nearing-middles).

How about you?

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24 comments to Once Upon a Time – Beginnings

  • It must be at least 20 years since I read “The Robber Bride” too – I remember being knocked out by it but not many of the specifics. I’ve always thought of “The Blind Assassin” as my favourite Atwood, though I would need to revisit a few of her titles to be sure! “Alias Grace” was another I liked. I’ve often wished I could pin down quite what it is about her writing that is so unique, but you always know you’re reading an Atwood!

    • I remember being impressed by Alias Grace at the time, but I remember very little of that one as well; it would be another great re-read I think. The Blind Assassin was thrilling because of the way that the parallel story lines knit up eventually, but I would still love to re-read that one, as well, to see that unfolding en route.

  • I think Alias Grace has been my favourite Atwood though I haven’t reread it in years. And I’ve never read The Robber Bride…

    That book of poetry looks so appealing. I’ve really enjoyed Carol Ann Duffy’s work previously, and the concept of this one is particularly interesting.

  • Oh, I am so excited by what you say of Atwood’s book as it is on my reading list for this year.

  • It’s been so long since I read The Robber Bride that if I read it again, it would all be new to me. It was definitely way before I started blogging. I think when I was in my 20’s. I love Atwood as well, and have not read many of her books, which is good for me, because there is time to discover. I have Oryx and Crake in audio and need to get to that one soon…but you make The Robber Bride sound so tempting. My favorite so far is The Blind Assassin.

    • OOOOoo, when are you planning to listen to Oryx and Crake? I have to re-read that one (and Year of the Flood) this year, before the final book in that set is published: maybe we can dive it at the same time. The Robber Bride, with its relationships between the women and the fairy tale motif, is satisfying indeed: I think you would enjoy it.

  • Wendy

    Oh Atwood’s The Robber Bride is by far my favorite of her novels (and I’ve read a lot of her novels). My review if you’re interested: http://www.caribousmom.com/2008/11/25/the-robber-bride-book-review/

    • Thanks very much for including the link, Wendy. I share your enthusiasm for her works in general and agree that the complexity of her female characters is the draw. Even when I was reading her as a teenager, I recognized that part, although I think I missed the layered parts of her storytelling then. Which are you planning to read next?

      [Edited to add the following, which I couldn’t leave on your review because comments are closed. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and really like the quotes that you chose and am reminded of the very reason that I do admire MA’s prose, the feeling that you can read and re-read and still find new interconnections. For instance, that phrase about history not being something you can read backwards to a clean start, for of course Tony’s habit of viewing language “backwards” (or, at least, what the rest of us consider to be backward because we usually view it from the other direction) mirrors that. So many subtle details in her prose that I feel I overlook on a first reading. I really enjoyed re-reading TRB and it only makes me want to go back and re-read all her other works as well.]

  • Sounds like you’ve got a wonderful mixture of books on the go for Once Upon a Time. I have just finished reading A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin for the challenge and I am also working my way through The Complete Brothers Grimm. Its so long though not sure I’ll finish it in time.

  • Whispering Gums

    Ah that’s interesting re The Robber Bride … It’s one of my just fine Atwoods too. I
    I’m rather thrilled to hear about your re-read. And, as my daughter is currently in Toronto, I might suggest she read it. I think she’s living near the Queen Street area.

    • There are some Alice Munro stories that take place on Queen Street too (she used to have an apartment there for brief periods, as I understand it); Amy Lavender Harris’ book Imagining Toronto considers a fantastic assortment of Toronto-based stories, if your daughter shares your bookish obsessions…

  • Not sure which Atwood I’ll pick up next (I spread them out!). But, she has a new one coming out this year which is the third book in the Oryx and Crake trilogy- and I’m sure I’ll be reading that one at some point.

    • I do that with other authors for sure (although I do wonder, now, why I bother, because my memory is so poor that I might as well read everything and then re-read again later) but started reading MA too early in her career to spread them out; I definitely want to read #3 in Madadadam though, and will probably do so sooner rather than later to avoid having it spoiled by too much media coverage when it’s freshly released. *bites nails*

  • Oh, how cool that you are all reading The Robber Bride. I just picked it up for OUaT–I’m only about one fifth of the way through, but I am loving the language, characterization, and darkly comic aspects. You were wondering why people chose this book. In my case, I review ghost novels, so whenever I can for this challenge, I select a book with a ghost. (I started with Lavinia by Le Guin.)

    At any rate, I love all the fairy tale elements you are pulling out of the book, and I’m going to be more diligent about looking for those myself.

    My favorite book of Atwood’s (would that I were related to her in more than name!) is Cat’s Eye, which is one of those few books I re-read. I loved Blind Assassin with its three intertwining stories up until the final third when one of the narratives disappears. That one was the one I liked the most.

    • Oooh, novels with ghosts. Fascinating. And what a terrific choice: Le Guin! I have a feeling I’ll be adding your site to my list of regular reading, so I’m doubly glad that you left a comment here.

      Isn’t it funny, with TRB, how you might just overlook them?! I swear I did just that on my first reading. But, once you’ve got an eye for it, it feels like they are soaking the prose with allusions.

      When asked, I usually choose Cat’s Eye as my favourite too, but I feel that it comes with a lot of but’s, because I loved her early novels too, because they pulled me into reading Canadian literature, and I loved Handmaid’s Tale (because it challenged and changed my thinking in so many ways) and I loved the history in Alias Grace and the storytelling in Bind Assassin. (I think we had the same favourite storyline, but I would have to re-read to know for sure.)

  • […] word: Wow! I’m dropping this book into the fairy tale category thanks in part to a wonderful post by Buried in Print who first put me onto the notion that Atwood is playing with fairy tale motifs. What absolute fun […]

  • […] my first post about this year’s Once Upon a Time reading, I mentioned all the books that I have, since, […]

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