Oxford and Wonderland



Fantastic as it was, “Wonderland” was rooted in the place Dodgson lived and worked: the city and environs of Oxford with its ancient university, its “dreaming spires” and its surrounding countryside. Oxford is a city teeming with tourists and traffic, whose shop windows, in the sesquicentennial year of “Wonderland,” overflow with Alice merchandise; but if one listens closely, if one ducks through stone arches, opens creaky oaken doors, and descends to quiet riverside paths, one can still find the Oxford of Charles Dodgson and Alice.


Michael Cunningham’s A WILD SWAN

BENFEY-blog427Here’s Christopher Benfey on Cunningham’s new book of fairy tales reimagined:

Not all ugly ducklings turn out to be swans. Not all frogs are enchanted ­princes. And perhaps it’s best that way, as Cunningham notes in “Dis. Enchant,” his humane and rueful prologue: “If certain manifestations of perfection can be disgraced, or disfigured, or sent to walk the earth in iron shoes, the rest of us will find ourselves living in a less arduous world; a world of more reasonable expectations; a world in which the appellations ‘beauty’ and ‘potency’ can be conferred upon a larger cohort of women and men.” Who needs three wishes anyway? “Most of us can be counted on to manage our own ­undoings.”


Circle & Yearn in the Wizard of Oz


ROB KAPILOW, Composer: You know, amazingly, the answer to that starts with the very first two notes. In this famous opening idea, there’s really only two ideas. One of them, I call leap. The other one, I call circle and yearn. And it’s important.


JEFFREY BROWN: Leap and circle and yearn.

ROB KAPILOW: It’s important you learn these technical terms, Jeffrey.


ROB KAPILOW: Circle and yearn.

So, it starts off with this.

JEFFREY BROWN: I didn’t learn that with piano lessons, by the way, right?

ROB KAPILOW: It’s time.

We start off with this big leap. This is a full octave leap. That’s a big leap for a popular song. In fact, producers were worried that nobody would buy the song because it would be too hard to sing this opening leap.

Now, this leap isn’t just a big leap musically. It’s a leap between two different worlds and two parts of the voice. The first note is kind of low down there in chest voice. It’s Dorothy’s troubled reality. It’s Kansas, aridity, no flowers. It’s the black and white of the beginning of the film.


Brain, Child



Here’s the link to an article from the Blog Brain, Child, now one of my favorite sites on reading.


Wendy Griswold, a sociologist and author of the third book on this list explains that, “A reading class is a social formation, while a reading culture is a society where reading is expected, valued, and common. All societies with written language have a reading class but few have a reading culture.” Let’s just say that if you are a Brain, Child reader, you are a member of the reading class. Though you probably also know then that more than raising readers, it would be wonderful to help create a reading culture. That is the ultimate goal of these ten books together, which move from the theoretical to the practical and pragmatic. But of course we must also be concerned about the other iteration of raising readers—from basic literacy to love of a book to love of literature, etc. and each book individually addresses one of these issues in some way. As Jason Boog, author of book #4 on this list, explains, snobbery really has no place in children’s worlds; we should encourage them to read whatever interests them in any form including comics and eBooks in addition to treasured hardcovers and sacred board books. Happy Reading!

Perri Klass on Bedtime Stories


Below the link to Perri Klass’s post on bedtime reading and how children process the stories they hear.  I love the accompanying image, which reminds us of the tactile experience of reading together and how books create a contact zone between child and adult, giving them something to talk about as well as to hear and see.

What was especially novel was that children who were exposed to more books and home reading showed significantly more activity in the areas of the brain that process visual association, even though the child was in the scanner just listening to a story and could not see any pictures.

“When kids are hearing stories, they’re imagining in their mind’s eye when they hear the story,” said Dr. Hutton. “For example, ‘The frog jumped over the log.’ I’ve seen a frog before, I’ve seen a log before, what does that look like?”


Mayoral Moral Panic about “Gay Fairy Tales”


Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!  Did we need any more evidence that the stakes are high when it comes to fairy tales and children’s literature?  On the plus side, I feel sure that this kind of lunatic move of banning children’s books ends up being a net positive by revealing exactly how narrow-minded, misguided, and downright thick-headed the Mayor of Venice is.  The Venetians will come to their senses in the next election.  So grateful for NYT “Watchdog”:


There is the story of the male dog who aspired to be a ballerina. The one about the little boy who wanted to be a princess, and a princess who wanted to be a soccer player. The tale of the penguin egg hatched and adopted by two male penguins (based on a real story at the Central Park Zoo in New York). And another about a little boy who learns to live with a physical disability, metaphorically depicted as a little saucepan that bangs around in his wake.

Yet one of the first formal acts of Venice’s new conservative mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, was to announce that he would ban them from the city’s preschool libraries. After an outcry — from residents, authors, publishers, librarian associations and even Amnesty International — he whittled his list of banned books to just two.

But that was not before the mayor had ignited a lively debate about the right of educators to choose their teaching tools without political interference, and about Italy’s continuing struggle with broadening civil rights for gays.

The two banned books touch on same-sex families living happily ever after. It only inflamed matters further when some national news outlets dismissively referred to the titles as “gay fairy tales.”


Armando Maggi brings back Basile’s TALE OF TALES

51TK02HYgmL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Fairy tales are supposed to be magical, surprising, and exhilarating, an enchanting counterpoint to everyday life that nonetheless helps us understand and deal with the anxieties of that life. Today, however, fairy tales are far from marvelous—in the hands of Hollywood, they have been stripped of their power, offering little but formulaic narratives and tame surprises.

If we want to rediscover the power of fairy tales—as Armando Maggi thinks we should—we need to discover a new mythic lens, a new way of approaching and understanding, and thus re-creating, the transformative potential of these stories. In Preserving the Spell, Maggi argues that the first step is to understand the history of the various traditions of oral and written narrative that together created the fairy tales we know today. He begins his exploration with the ur-text of European fairy tales, Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, then traces its path through later Italian, French, English, and German traditions, with particular emphasis on the Grimm Brothers’ adaptations of the tales, which are included in the first-ever English translation in an appendix. Carrying his story into the twentieth century, Maggi mounts a powerful argument for freeing fairy tales from their bland contemporary forms, and reinvigorating our belief that we still can find new, powerfully transformative ways of telling these stories.  Fairy tales are supposed to be magical, surprising, and exhilarating, an enchanting counterpoint to everyday life that nonetheless helps us understand and deal with the anxieties of that life. Today, however, fairy tales are far from marvelous—in the hands of Hollywood, they have been stripped of their power, offering little but formulaic narratives and tame surprises. From the Amazon webpage for the volume.


Armando Maggi begins with “Cupid and Psyche” and takes us through the Brothers Grimm up to Robert Coover and Beasts of the Southern Wild.  He begins with a remarkable passage from The Art of Remembering, by Giovan Battista Della Porta, set down in 1566:

“I better remember the poorly composed fairy tales that my nurse used to recite when I was a child than the tales of poets that I read every day.”

Wonderfully exacting and erudite as a scholar, Maggi gives us startling windows into fairy-tale magic and poetry.  My only disagreement has to do with the critique of Hollywood’s recycling of fairy tales.  While it is true that some fairy-tale films are opportunistic and kitschy, others use fairy-tale tropes and plot elements in remarkably original and imaginative waysas I discovered this weekend, while watching The Gift.  I have a feeling that Armando Maggi would agree that the Dream Factory may not always get it right, but sometimes it fires on many cylinders.

“The Gift” and Its Fairy-Tale Subtexts


Just returned from “The Gift” and was astonished by its allusive quality–doorknob cinema at its best and many nods to “Bluebeard,” “Snow White,” and “Sleeping Beauty.”  I especially liked the cut-up apple slices.  I’ll give too much away if I elaborate!